Building Upon Significant Progress in Reducing Cancer Disparities
The cancer community received important news from the American Cancer Society (ACS) earlier this month with a new report showing that the gap in cancer death rates between African Americans and whites has narrowed over the past few decades, particularly for lung, colorectal and prostate cancers.
This is substantial progress toward our collective goal of eliminating cancer disparities, and when noteworthy progress is made in our fight against this disease it’s critical that we determine how we can best build on that momentum. My colleague Len Lichtenfeld, M.D., interim chief medical and scientific officer for ACS, noted that the reduction in the black-white cancer disparity is largely due to a decline in lung cancer death rates driven by decreases in smoking over the past 40 years, and that “we need to expand access to high-quality cancer prevention, early detection and treatment for all Americans” to continue this progress.
ACS CAN is focused on public policies to further this great progress in reducing cancer disparities. While people who have never smoked or who have quit smoking can develop lung cancer, cigarette smoking is the most important risk factor for lung cancer, and ACS CAN supports proven tobacco control interventions – regular and significant tobacco tax increases, comprehensive smoke-free policies and funding tobacco prevention and cessation programs – to reduce tobacco use and secondhand smoke exposure in all communities. We continue to advocate to prohibit menthol flavoring in combustible cigarettes since the tobacco industry has long used menthol as a marketing tool to sell its deadly products at a disproportionate rate to the African American community. ACS CAN also supports a ban on all flavors for tobacco products, including cigars.
ACS CAN prioritizes its advocacy on access to proven prevention programs and quality health care for all cancer patients. Low-income individuals and families face more barriers to high-quality health care, resulting in a higher risk of experiencing health disparities, so expanding access to care for all Americans is necessary to achieve health equity. We advocate for increased funding for state and federal breast and cervical cancer early detection programs so underserved women are better able to access preventive services and lifesaving screenings, as well as support expanding access to affordable health care through Medicaid so low-income families can access their cancer treatment.
As gratifying as this new data is to those of us in the fight against cancer, health disparities still exist. African Americans still experience the highest death rate and lowest survival rate of any racial or ethnic group for most cancers, and many other communities haven’t benefited equally from our advances in cancer prevention and treatment. We won’t achieve our goal of eliminating cancer without actively addressing these disparities in the public policies for which we advocate. As we near the end of Black History Month and reflect on how best to capitalize on this progress, I encourage you to look at ACS CAN’s Cancer Disparities Chartbook, published last fall, which highlights concrete, evidence-based public policy strategies to address cancer disparities and build upon the significant progress we’ve made thus far.