October 07, 2019
Despite dramatic strides in cancer research, not everyone has benefited equally. Cancer incidence rates for men have been decreasing over the past 15 years; however, African American men still have a higher cancer incidence rate than white men and women and African American women. African American men have higher cancer death rates than white men, and African American women have higher cancer death rates than white women.
The American Cancer Society attributes some of the disparities in survival to later stage of diagnosis among African Americans, a lower likelihood of receiving high-quality treatment, as well as differences in tumor characteristics and genetic and immune factors.
Why is it important to understand these disparities? Inequities affect us all, regardless of whether you’re a member of the affected population. It is not just a social justice issue; it’s an economic issue. Estimates of the costs of cancer to Kansas are approximately $2 billion annually, according to the American Cancer Society. These inequities represent lost human potential, decreased productivity and increased healthcare costs.
A look at Kansas’ population
Kansas has a diverse population, including many groups that have been historically neglected when it comes to healthcare. This includes a rapidly growing Hispanic community, African American urban poor, Native Americans, immigrant Asian populations and elderly rural whites.
One study found that cervical cancer incidence rates among women residing in rural areas were 15% higher than those of women residing in metropolitan areas. Other studies have found that rural residents are more likely to be diagnosed with more advanced cancer and to die of cancer than are those living in urban areas. Survivors have higher risk for a number of poor health outcomes many years after their cancer diagnosis.
Closing the gap
As associate director of Health Equity at The University of Kansas Cancer Center, I have been working to develop a comprehensive program that aims to bring more equity to cancer care in Kansas. The goals of our program are to:
- Identify, implement and fund research critical to reducing cancer-related health disparities
- Ensure health disparities are addressed at the levels of basic discovery, clinical trials and community engagement
- Engage with communities to ensure the needs of underrepresented populations are identified and addressed
- Develop specific, targeted research interventions in collaboration with those groups to reduce cancer disparities
- Facilitate partnerships with community and healthcare clinics to promote early detection screening, education and cancer prevention strategies
- Coordinate efforts across programs to increase recruitment of underrepresented populations into cancer research
Recently, we hosted a Collaboration Exploration event, convening The University of Kansas Cancer Center researchers to brainstorm research partnerships that address health disparities. We are also providing new pilot grant funding to encourage the creation of new research teams to address issues that contribute to the disparities – from basic biological research to community concerns and social determinants of health. These are just a few of the ways we are working to close the health disparity gaps.
We know that everyone is unique, and people respond differently to the same approach or treatment. That is why it is critically important to ensure that all people are represented when it comes to cancer research and treatment.
We are inspired and motivated by decreasing cancer mortality rates, but it is time for these advances to be felt across all populations.