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About Cancer Health Disparities

Cancer health disparities are adverse differences between certain groups in cancer measures, such as:

  • Incidence (new cases)
  • Prevalence (all existing cases)
  • Morbidity (cancer-related health complications)
  • Mortality (deaths)
  • Survivorship and quality of life after cancer treatment
  • Burden of cancer or related health conditions
  • Screening rates
  • Stage at diagnosis

Cancer health disparities are often considered in the context of race and ethnicity; however, other population groups may experience disparities. People who are from low socioeconomic backgrounds often bear a greater burden of disease than the general U.S. population. Other population groups that experience cancer health disparities may be defined by age, disability, gender and sexual identity, education, or other characteristics.

Learn More About Cancer Health Disparities

What Contributes to Cancer Health Disparities?

Complex and interrelated factors contribute to the observed disparities in cancer incidence and death among racial, ethnic, and underserved groups. The most obvious factors are associated with a lack of health care coverage and low socioeconomic status (SES).

SES is most often based on a person's income, education level, occupation, and other factors, such as social status in the community and where he or she lives. Studies have found that SES, more than race or ethnicity, predicts the likelihood of an individual's or a group's access to education, certain occupations, health insurance, and living conditions—including conditions where exposure to environmental toxins is most common—all of which are associated with the risk of developing cancer and the likelihood of survival. SES, in particular, appears to play a major role in influencing the prevalence of behavioral risk factors for cancer, such as tobacco use, physical inactivity, obesity, excessive alcohol intake, and health status). SES also affects individuals' decisions to follow cancer screening recommendations.

Research also shows that individuals from medically underserved populations are more likely to be diagnosed with late-stage diseases that might have been treated more effectively or cured if diagnosed earlier. Financial, physical, and cultural beliefs are also barriers that prevent individuals or groups from obtaining adequate health care.

Biological differences also appear to play a role in some cancer health disparities. For example, there may be biological differences between the triple-negative breast, colorectal, and prostate cancers in African Americans and people of other racial/ethnic groups. Advances in genomics and other molecular technologies are improving our understanding of how biological differences among population groups contribute to health disparities and how biological factors interact with other potentially relevant factors, such as diet and the environment.

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