Let’s ‘Close the Gap’ for Black History Month
- It remains an unfortunate fact that Black Americans have the highest cancer death rates, as well as the shortest survival times, of any racial or ethnic group in the United States.
- There are a number of reasons for this disturbing statistic, but social and economic disparities, as well as a lack of access to health care, are contributing to these negative outcomes.
- Additionally, Black Americans are underrepresented in clinical trials studying new cancer treatments. And there is a distrust of medical research among the Black community dating back to the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study.
- One way to close the gap beyond Black History Month is to enroll more Black Americans in clinical trials. This will help researchers learn more about risk-related genes common in people of African descent.
It remains an unfortunate fact that Black Americans have the highest cancer death rates, as well as the shortest survival times, of any racial or ethnic group in the United States.Read More
“… the mortality rates are markedly different, with Black women having a 40 percent higher death rate from breast cancer. Among women under 50, the disparity is even greater: The mortality rate among young Black women is double that of young white women,” according to BCRF.
Linda Tantawi was previously the chief executive officer of Susan G. Komen New York City’s affiliate. (She’s now the CEO of The Lustgarten Foundation Pancreatic Cancer Research.) While with the Komen organization, she en-enforced this sobering statistic — while Black women and white women are diagnosed with breast cancer at the same rate, Black women are 40% more likely to die.
“That is unacceptable,” she previously told SurvivorNet.
“Disparities in access to care are prevalent throughout the United States and increase women’s risk of dying from breast cancer,” she added.
Here at SurvivorNet, we strive to close this racial gap for good, not just for Black History Month. Close the Gap is our ongoing effort to raise awareness for the huge disparities that exist for minorities when it comes to cancer care. We partnered with NYU Langone and the Perlmutter Cancer Center, along with top doctors, survivors and cancer community executives, to enlighten, challenge and educate.
Reasons for Higher Cancer Incidence Among Black Americans
There are a number of reasons for these disturbing statistics, but social and economic disparities, as well as a lack of access to health care, are contributing to these negative outcomes. In fact, about half of these cancers could be prevented with interventions such as weight loss, smoking cessation and better nutrition.
Additionally, Black Americans are underrepresented in clinical trials studying new cancer treatments. But there are efforts underway to engage more Black Americans in research. This is being done so that they can gain further benefits from various treatments being studied.
“It is clear that the advances in treatment that have dramatically reduced breast cancer mortality overall have not equally benefited all groups,” BCRF previously reported. This is something that remains true for Black women.
Lastly, there is a distrust of medical research among the Black community dating back to the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, a 40-year experiment by the U.S. government that purposely infected more than 600 Black men with syphilis. The aim of the study was not to treat these men, but to see what would happen if the disease went untreated, effectively a death sentence for many.
This study is just one of the many examples of institutionalized racism toward Black Americans within the medical community; this study, and many other incidents, have cultivated a deep mistrust in medical research that has impacted cancer outcomes.
These facts may be hard to wrap our heads around, but it’s important to acknowledge them, even beyond Black History Month.
Closing the Gap for Black History Month
One way to close the gap beyond Black History Month is to enroll more Black Americans in clinical trials. This will help researchers to learn more about risk-related genes common in people of African descent.
Unfortunately, hospitals that run clinical trials may do a poor job of enrolling a diverse mix of people, and Black people may be less likely to agree to participate. This is especially true for Black women when it comes to breast cancer.
Dr. Oluchi Oke, a breast medical oncologist at MD Anderson Cancer Center, previously told SurvivorNet that this is partially due to the deep mistrust in medical research.
“Part of that has to do with a long history of mistrust of clinical trials in the African American community based on a history of unethical clinical trials that were conducted in African American people,” Oke said. “And they don’t necessarily have updated information about the stringent protocols that clinical trials now must follow in order to be ethical.”
Conversely, doctors may be less likely to ask Black patients to join clinical trials because they assume the answer will be no.
“Don’t wait for your doctor to offer you a clinical trial. Ask,” Dr. Oke said.
Kimberly Alexander, chief executive officer at Level Health Agency, said during SurvivorNet’s Close the Gap conference last year that there also needs to be a continued commitment to representation in clinical trials.
“It can’t be, ‘Hey, we’re going to show up and support you all,’ five people turn out and they decide they don’t want to come out and support anymore because they didn’t get the ROI (return on investment) they were looking for,” she said. “I think that there just needs to be some long-term ideas, some forward thinking, some commitment to sticking with these communities and letting them know the importance of having their DNA in clinical trials.”
She highlighted the statistic that multiple myeloma is more likely to affect Black men than anyone, but “they’re not a part of the conversation because they’re not participating.” She added that there needs to be education and commitment from everyone involved in order to make a difference when it comes to representation of Black people in clinical trials.
“There’s still a gap in knowledge for certain subpopulations depending on your genetic ancestry and we are still trying to work that out,” Melissa B. Davis, Ph.D., scientific director of the International Center for the Study of Breast Cancer Subtypes at Weill Cornell Medical College, previously told SurvivorNet.
“What we’re working on is trying to increase the representation of non-European people in genetic studies so we can learn what these genes mean.”
Contributing: Sonya Collins & SurvivorNet staff reports