April 2011 - Blacks and Cancer: Dare to Set a Different Standard

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In 1987, the third week of April was designated as Minority Cancer Awareness Week. Since its inception 24 years ago, this week has promoted increased awareness of prevention and treatment among those segments of the populations–minorities and the poor-- at greater risk of developing and dying from cancer. Awareness of cancer risk factors and the benefits of early detection and treatment are widely promoted through all types of media. The problem of cancer among African-Americans is discussed in conferences and professional roundtables on health disparities–everyone offering their observations and reasons for the continuing dismal statistics. Yet, despite numerous cancer awareness campaigns and efforts promoting early detection and treatment that have targeted our community, African-Americans continue to have the highest overall cancer incidence and mortality rates when compared with other segments of the population–especially whites.

During Minority Cancer Awareness Week, there will be lots of discussion around eliminating disparities in cancer survival. Statistics will be cited about the high incidence of cancer among African-Americans and other minorities as compared to whites; the high cancer-related mortality compared to whites. The failure of African-Americans to get cancer screenings and early treatment compared to whites. In every instance, the baseline for comparison will be whites.

So, why is it that African-Americans continue to lose in their fight against cancer? Without question, racism and socio-economic status are key factors that contribute to cancer survival–i.e., availability, accessibility and affordability of high quality health care. There is also research data that suggests the biology of some cancers may behave differently in African-Americans. While these are unarguably real barriers to care–there are some things that we can do–not smoking, annual screenings, diet modification-- to level the paying field, and eliminate the disparities in survival. Yet, for some reason we continue to fail to do those things that are within our control.

But here's a revolutionary thought: What if we decided that eliminating disparities in cancer survival was no longer the goal. Rather, the new goal for African-Americans would be for African-Americans to become the new gold standard for comparison for cancer statistics. The new goal would be for our incidence of cancer to be so low that other population groups would strive to mirror our numbers; our survival rates would be so high that the scientific community would study our biology to understand our body chemistry's ability to conquer this killer disease. Our diet would be so effective in minimizing cancer risk that medical professionals would recommend our diet to all Americans as a means of reducing cancer risk and perhaps even increasing cancer survival.

Perhaps it's a pipe-dream to think it'll ever be possible to re-define the discussion on cancer disparities. But if we continue to dedicate ourselves to fighting for equal access to affordable quality care and doing those things that we know increase our cancer survival rates, i.e., not smoking, annual screenings, and diet modification, perhaps one day, Minority Cancer Awareness Week will have cause to celebrate a new gold standard for comparison in citing cancer statistics–one in which African-Americans are defining and leading the way, rather than trying to play catch-up.

With you on your Journey to Wellness,
Dr. Mary S. Harris

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