Perspectives 5 minute read

Six Ways Black and African Americans Can Improve Their Cancer Odds

In recognition of National Black Family Cancer Awareness Week, Dr. John Farley shares six ways Black and African Americans can improve cancer odds.

By Dr. John Farley, Division Head for Gynecologic Oncology, Dignity Health Cancer Institute at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center

Research shows that approximately 42% of cancers are potentially avoidable, including 19% caused by smoking. Yet, Black and African Americans have the highest death rate and shortest survival of any racial and ethnic group in the United States for most cancers. 

Kidney cancer, for example, is more common in Black people than in those of other ethnicities, and the death rate is higher. Black women have the highest mortality rate from breast cancer compared to members of other races. They also have a higher mortality rate for cervical cancer, whose survival rate is 91% when detected early. That means that when caught early, most women survive at least five years after being diagnosed.

Socioeconomic factors and lack of medical care access contribute to these disparities, as does misinformation. Knowing your cancer risk and taking steps to lower your chances is essential. 

In recognition of National Black Family Cancer Awareness Week, Dr. John Farley, Division Head for Gynecologic Oncology, Dignity Health Cancer Institute at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center, shares six steps Black and African Americans can take to reduce their cancer risk.

1. Know your risk.

Everyone should know their cancer risk. That's especially true for African Americans, who are more likely to carry genetic variants for breast, ovarian, and prostate cancers. Find out your family health history and ask your doctor how this impacts your likelihood of certain cancers. Tell your doctor about your alcohol use and smoking history, and ask about vaccines you may need to reduce your risk for some cancers. Understanding common risk factors for most cancers is your best defense against cancer. 

2. Get vaccinated.

HPV, or human papillomavirus, is a prevalent virus that can cause up to six types of cancer. While there is no treatment for HPV, there is a vaccine that can help prevent it. The HPV vaccine can help prevent cervical, anal, vaginal, ear, throat, and neck cancers. The vaccine is recommended for boys and girls as early as age 9 and some unvaccinated adults.

Another vaccine most people, including babies, children, and adolescents, should get is the hepatitis vaccine. It protects against hepatitis B, a liver disease that can lead to liver cancer. Getting these vaccinations on time can lower your risk of getting hepatitis B and HPV-related cancers. Ask your doctor about other vaccines you may need to stay healthy. 

3. Listen to your body.

Recognizing changes in your body can help you prevent serious medical problems. First, learn what your body generally looks and feels like, and tell your doctor if you notice something abnormal. Think of things like a sore that won’t heal, lumps in the breast or other parts of your body, blood in your stool or urine, or changes in the size or color of a mole. You should report anything that’s not considered normal for you. Remember, spotting cancer at an early stage can save lives.

4. Get screened.

Cancer is harder to treat after it spreads to other parts of the body, making early detection essential. Regular screenings can detect cancer in its earliest stages when treatment works best. It can even prevent most colon, rectum, and cervical cancers, as they begin as non-cancerous tissue. Unfortunately, cancer screening rates are lower among Black populations. Talk to your doctor about which screening tests are right for you and when and how frequently you should get screened. Screening recommendations vary based on age and your likelihood of developing certain cancers.

5. Choose a healthy lifestyle.

Proper nutrition and regular exercise don’t guarantee cancer prevention but might reduce your risk for many types of cancer. For example, there’s a link between physical inactivity and a higher risk of bladder, breast, colon, kidney, and stomach cancers. Similarly, obesity or being overweight increase your risk for many types of cancer, including colorectal, breast, endometrial, and kidney. Alcohol and tobacco use are also to blame for many kinds of cancer and should be limited or avoided altogether. Eating a balanced diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and staying active are essential habits that will improve your health in more ways than one.

6. Join a clinical trial.

Clinical trials for lifesaving therapies wouldn’t be possible without people. In fact, clinical trials are most successful when people from different backgrounds are part of the study. That’s because people may experience the same disease differently based on race and ethnicity, age, gender, heredity, and other factors. Additionally, experts recommend that people of all races and ethnicities donate specimens to national genetic databases for cancer research. These databases often lack samples from different populations and people with rare cancers. Finally, patients who participate in cancer clinical trials have improved outcomes compared to patients who do not.

The takeaway.

Living a healthy lifestyle and getting regular screenings can make a difference in cancer prevention and early detection. If you smoke, vape, or use other tobacco products, consider asking your health care provider about a quitting plan. Try to maintain a healthy weight and avoid processed meats which can raise your risk for many cancers. Screening guidelines vary based on age, gender, and risk factors. Ask your health care provider for a cancer screening schedule.


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