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Cancer Health Disparities Definitions and Examples

General Disparity Definitions

Cancer Health Disparities

Cancer health disparities are adverse differences between certain population 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, and stage at diagnosis.

These population groups may be characterized by race, ethnicity, disability, gender and sexual identity, geographic location, income, education, and other characteristics. Generally, people who are from low socioeconomic backgrounds (poor, lack health insurance, and are medically underserved with limited or no access to effective health care) often bear a greater burden of disease than the general U.S. population.

Health Disparities

Health disparities are significant differences between one population and another. Below are federal definitions of the term that illustrate the multiple perspectives on health disparities:

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) defines health disparities as differences in health outcomes that are closely linked with social, economic, and environmental disadvantage and are often driven by the social conditions in which individuals live, learn, work, and play.

Healthy People 2020 states that a health disparity is a health difference that is closely linked with social, economic, and/or environmental disadvantage. Health disparities adversely affect groups of people who have systematically experienced greater obstacles to health based on their racial or ethnic group; religion; socioeconomic status; gender; age; mental health; cognitive, sensory, or physical disability; sexual orientation or gender identity; geographic location; or other characteristics historically linked to discrimination or exclusion.

Health Disparity Population

In 2000, United States Public Law 106-525, also known as the "Minority Health and Health Disparities Research and Education Act," which authorized the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, provided a legal definition of a health disparity population: “A population is a health disparity population if there is a significant disparity in the overall rate of disease incidence, prevalence, morbidity, mortality, or survival rates in the population as compared to the health status of the general population.” Minority Health and Health Disparities Research and Education Act United States Public Law 106-525 (2000), p. 2498

Health Disparities Research

According to The National Institute on Drug Abuse, NIH defines health disparities research to include basic, clinical, and social sciences studies that focus on identifying, understanding, preventing, diagnosing, and treating health conditions such as diseases, disorders, and other conditions that are unique to, more serious, or more prevalent in health disparity populations.

Health Equity

HHS’s Office of Minority Health defines health equity as the attainment of the highest level of health for all people. Achieving health equity requires valuing everyone equally with focused and ongoing societal efforts to address avoidable inequalities, historical and contemporary injustices, and the elimination of health and health care disparities.

Health Literacy

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010’s definition of health literacy: the degree to which an individual has the capacity to obtain, communicate, process, and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions.

Racial/Ethnic Group Definitions

In 1997, the Federal Register Notice released the "Revisions to the Standards for the Classification of Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity," defining racial and ethnic groups:


  • American Indian or Alaska Native: A person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America) and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment.
  • Asian: A person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent, including for example Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, and Vietnam.
  • Black or African American: A person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa.
  • Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander: A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, or other Pacific Islands.
  • White: A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.


  • Hispanic or Latino: A person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race.

Examples of Cancer Health Disparities

Although cancer incidence and mortality overall are declining in all racial/ethnic groups in the United States, certain groups continue to be at increased risk of developing or dying from particular cancers. Learn more about examples of cancer disparities.

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