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As cancer deaths fall nationally, racial disparities still exist

2024-01-24

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A new report published in The Journal of the American Medical Association highlighted racial disparities in cancer deaths between Black and white Americans.

The findings, which reviewed data from 2000-2020, found cancer deaths nationally have fallen by 1/3 since 1991
, a decrease that's coincided with a diminishing gap in racial disparities; Black Americans were 26% more likely to die of cancer in 2000, a figure which is now at 12%.

"We know there's a lot of progress that's been made in screening and primary prevention, including smoking cessation programs, and a lot of rapid developments in treatment strategies. We have a lot of new targeted therapies, immunotherapies, better surgical techniques," said Dr. Tomi Akinyemiju, co-author of the report and cancer epidemiologist and Professor of Population Health Sciences at the Duke Global Health Institute.

Dr. Akinyemiju said this multi-layered approach has made an impact, though has not fully addressed the existence of disparities.

"Those benefits are not being equally felt in those different communities," said Dr. Akinyemiju.

The Biden administration previously vowed to implement a ban on menthol cigarettes , which are preferred overwhelmingly by Black smokers. However, those plans have been delayed .

"Nearly half a million North Carolinians actually smoke menthol cigarettes. We know those cigarette companies deliberately target Black communities," said Dr. Akinyemiju.

As part of a press release issued Wednesday, the American Lung Association addressed support for a ban:

"It is unacceptable that after decades of research and proven tobacco control efforts, tobacco use is still the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the U.S. Tobacco use is responsible for 480,000 deaths each year, including 45,000 Black individuals. Right now, President Biden can take action and save lives if he finalizes the rules to end the sale of menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars. Menthol cigarettes make it both easier to start and harder to quit by reducing the harshness of the smoke and cooling the throat. Once these rules are final, fewer people will start smoking, millions will begin their journey to quit and lives will be saved," said Harold Wimmer, President and CEO of the American Lung Association. "We know that the tobacco industry will do anything to protect their profits at the expense of public health, so the White House must focus on implementing lifesaving policies and push back against the industry's delay tactics."

Dr. Akinyemiju listed other reasons for the disparity to include a lack of healthcare coverage, healthy food deserts, and mistrust of medical professionals.

"Health systems need to do a lot of introspection, look at our own systems and practice patterns, make sure that we are providing the best quality care for everyone," said Dr. Akinyemiju, adding they can also play a larger role in advocacy efforts for policies such as a menthol cigarette ban.

"I have met a wide variety of women that have said that their doctors didn't listen to them, which caused their breast cancer progressing beyond where it needed to be when they noticed something that was wrong," said Portia Scott Hedgepeth, a breast cancer survivor in Durham.

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Hedgepeth was just 31 years old when she was diagnosed.

"I'm proud to say I'm a 30-year breast cancer survivor and thriving for this long," said Hedgepeth.

She now serves as President of Sisters Network of the Triangle , a support group focused on Black breast cancer survivors.

"We don't turn anybody away, but it is important to partner, to listen, to have the support of someone that looks like yourself, that's been through what you're going through. And I think that makes a big difference," said Hedgepeth.

She acknowledged advancements in both treatment and support services since her diagnosis, as she encouraged people to work with the medical community.

"Another thing that's important that we, and I say we as African-American women, need to make sure that we do is participate in clinical trials, because if (doctors) don't have a sampling of what's going on with us, we can't be included in the numbers for the cures and the treatments. So it's important. And it's not just with breast cancer, it's with any type of disease. Please participate in the clinical trials because they are important to the longevity, maybe not of you, but of someone behind you to help in their treatment and cure," Hedgepeth said.
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