The Reasons Behind Racial Disparities in Cancer Survival

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Race is a significant indicator of the likelihood of developing cancer and the chances that it will be caught early on. The American Cancer Society (ACA) found that women of color have higher rates of all major types of cancer than white women. People of color are also less likely to receive early-stage cancer diagnoses, which are easier to treat and have higher levels of treatment success. Instead, they are more likely to receive late-stage diagnoses because of missed screenings. 

While it’s important to understand what causes cancer, it’s also valuable to look at racial disparities to improve health outcomes. Learn why these racial gaps in healthcare exist and what it means for the patients who are diagnosed with cancer. 

Overview of Cancer Disparities

Racial disparities occur across all levels of the cancer diagnosis, treatment, and recovery process. Disparities occur when one group has access to better screening and treatment than others. Better healthcare and support usually lead to higher recovery rates, which means more privileged groups have better outcomes. 

For example, people of color are less likely to get preventative cancer screenings that can detect unhealthy cells before they develop tumors and spread. This means they are less likely to receive early-stage diagnoses that are easily treated. Instead, they will receive late-stage diagnoses that require aggressive treatment and have worse outcomes. A single factor like access to screenings can have a domino effect across the treatment process.   

Black men and Black women have the highest cancer death rates compared to other racial groups in the United States. In the name of public health and improving society as a whole, these racial disparities cannot be ignored. 

Types of Cancer With Notable Disparities

Cancer comes in a variety of forms that harm people of all races. However, some types of cancer have higher disparity levels than others. Here are a few types of cancer that are more prevalent amongst people of color and why these populations are more severely affected. 

Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is the second-most common cancer diagnosis for women, and yet Black women are less likely to receive the treatment they need to overcome this disease. Preventative screenings are a significant driver in catching cancer early. If women of color don’t have access to this form of care, they are less likely to catch the disease before it spreads and becomes severe. 

Prostate Cancer

Prostate cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer-related death in men and researchers believe some forms of this cancer might be genetic. While Black men have a slightly better five-year survival rate than white men (31.6% vs. 29.1%) success rates depend on healthcare access. Not only are awareness and screening important, but patients also need access to treatment and care. 

Patients also require rest to fight cancer successfully. Pressure to support families and maintain employment can prevent low-income men from getting the care they need. 

Lung Cancer

Lung cancer rates continue to drop as fewer people than ever take up smoking. The percentage of people who smoke cigarettes dropped from 42.4% in 1965 to 12.5% in 2020. However, this is still one of the most common cancer-related diseases in the world. People of color are more likely to be exposed to second-hand smoke, which increases lung cancer rates among minority non-smokers. 

Further, researchers have found that the five-year survival rate for lung cancer is 18% for white patients but 15% for Black patients. This same study also reported that detection and treatment are two top indicators of whether a patient will survive a lung cancer diagnosis. Patients who catch the disease early and receive adequate care are more likely to survive.

Colorectal Cancer

Colorectal cancer is considered a preventable disease as long as patients have access to regular screenings and care. Black Americans have the highest incidence of colorectal cancer and mortality rates because these communities lack access to the right care. 

Lifestyle factors can also play a role in cancer development, as a lack of access to healthy foods and opportunities to exercise can lead to higher obesity rates that increase cancer risks. 

Socioeconomic Factors and Cancer Disparities

Skin tone alone doesn’t determine your likelihood of developing cancer and receiving treatment. Instead, it contributes to the likelihood of certain socioeconomic factors. One study found that people living in low socioeconomic status areas are more likely to be younger, people of color, and serviced by community centers and Medicaid. On average, cancer patients from these neighborhoods die eight months earlier than those from well-off areas. 

People from poorer regions will have less access to screenings because they are relying on the availability of community centers. Financially, they are less likely to be able to afford cancer care or medication or have the ability to travel for advanced and experimental treatment. They may also be unable to take time off work to get care. Because cancer patients in these regions are more likely to be Black or Latino, there is a correlation between race and cancer treatment, but not causation. 

Genetic and Biological Factors

People develop cancer for a variety of reasons, including exposure to toxic chemicals from pollution or the use of tobacco. However, some people are predisposed to develop certain cancers because of their genetics. Family cancer syndrome occurs when people pass on genetic variants that are more likely to cause their kids to develop cancer. If white patients have greater access to health screenings, they can use their known family history of cancer to take preventative action.

However, socioeconomic factors also impact people who are predisposed to developing certain cancers. People with access to healthcare can invest in genetic screening and take preventative medical steps to catch cancer early on. People without that access are more likely to have cancer develop undetected until it is too late. 

Even with access to medical care, people of color have been abused by the medical community for centuries. There is a severe distrust because of this abuse that might keep patients away from routine screenings and prevent them from receiving early-stage diagnoses that are easily treated.  

Environmental and Lifestyle Factors

Low-income people, who are more likely to be people of color, are also more likely to develop certain cancers. This is because they lack the financial privilege to gain access to healthier lifestyles. Here are just a few examples:

  • Poorer communities are more likely to be exposed to toxic air pollution. People in these communities are more likely to work outside and cannot move or stay indoors with air filters when the air is unhealthy. 
  • People of color are less likely to have access to healthy food options because of income inequality. Lack of healthy food increases obesity rates and can potentially lead to higher cancer diagnoses. 
  • Residents of low socioeconomic areas are more likely to be exposed to dirty water, like the residents of Flint, Michigan. Polluted water can impact communities for decades and cause cancer, birth defects, and a variety of other conditions. For example, veterans at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina are still seeking compensation after years of drinking dirty water that led to countless cancers and illnesses.
  • Lack of access to public health information can cause parents to make dangerous choices for their kids that they think are healthy. They might not know that talc powder for babies and certain types of infant formula are toxic.   


People in poor socioeconomic communities do the best with what they have. However, the reality is their lifestyles are less privileged and more harmful to their bodies, which can lead to higher rates of cancer. Polluted air, dirty water, and lack of access to healthy food can all affect a person’s health.  

Chemical Hair Straighteners (Hair Relaxers)

Some products may affect people of color more than customers in other racial groups. People of color are more likely to use hair straighteners and relaxers, which include harsh chemicals that can irritate the scalp. Researchers have also tied these hair products to higher rates of cancer in the communities that use them.  

This is also a socioeconomic issue. Black women are more likely to experience hair discrimination at work where braids, knots, locs, and natural hair are viewed as unprofessional. This puts pressure on them to use hair straighteners that are harsh and potentially toxic. If black hair was more accepted, fewer women might turn to these dangerous products.  

Reducing Disparities

Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to overcome racial disparities in cancer diagnosis and treatment. Centuries of discrimination have led to economic racial divides along with a severe distrust between people of color and the medical community. Even microaggressions in the workplace can affect a Black woman’s likelihood of developing cancer because of pressure to use straighteners.  

One of the best ways to close the disparity gap is with greater public health initiatives that reduce exposure to toxic chemicals and increase access to cancer screenings. If people live in healthier environments, they are less likely to develop cancer. If they catch cancer cells early on, they are more likely to have better treatment results. Prevention is one of the best ways to stop cancer, but it is also one of the hardest changes to implement across society.

Research also plays a role in reducing racial disparities. For example, many dermatologists use guidelines for diagnosing skin cancer based on white skin. This causes cancer on brown or black skin to go undetected. Better education, training, and investigation into how cancer presents itself in people of color can lead to better detection and earlier intervention.  

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