Overall, cancer rates are higher among Black people than non-Black people, especially for prostate and breast cancer. Racial disparities in the awareness, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer can have a devastating effect on individuals and their families.

In addition to noting the above, the American Cancer Society states that for many types of cancer, Black people have higher overall death rates than other populations.

Black males are twice as likely as white males to die of prostate cancer, and Black females are 40% more likely than white females to die of breast cancer.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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As with most racial disparities, various factors play a role. These include the cumulative effects of racism, access to medical care, differences in treatment, and more.

Keep reading to learn more about racial disparities in cancer, which cancers are most prevalent in African American people, and how individuals can seek an early diagnosis.

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Some important facts about cancer in African American people include:

  • Prostate cancer accounted for one-third of new cancers among Black males in 2016. Lung and colon cancers made up one-quarter.
  • Black females are nearly twice as likely to die of endometrial cancer than white females.
  • In 2016, the most common cancers among Black females were breast, lung, and colorectal cancers.
  • Black people have higher death rates from cancer than any other group.
  • Black people are less likely to develop melanoma, an aggressive skin cancer. However, when they do, they are more likely to die. Delayed diagnosis contributes to this higher death rate.
  • In 2019, 11.4% of Black people under the age of 65 years did not have health insurance. The figure for white people was 7.8%.

Numerous factors contribute to racial disparities in cancer.

Racism in medicine

Racial disparities in healthcare are common. For instance, 1 in 3 Black women say that they have experienced racism at the doctor’s office.

Racist biases may influence a healthcare professional’s perceptions of an individual’s symptoms, and they may be less likely to recommend certain tests or treatments. For example, Black males are more likely to die of prostate cancer. However, a 2019 study found that when they get similar care to white males for nonmetastatic prostate cancer, their outcomes are similar.

Doctors may also take Black people’s statements about their pain or symptoms less seriously. A 2016 study of medical students and residents found that half believed at least one racist myth about Black people, such as that they have thicker skin than white people or feel less pain.

Racist biases may mean that many doctors are less knowledgeable about Black health.

Although Black people are less likely than non-Hispanic white people to get melanoma, they are more likely to die from it. The reason for this is that some doctors are not familiar with what melanoma looks like on Black skin, which can lead to a delayed diagnosis.

A long history of racism in medicine means that some individuals might not trust doctors. This lack of trust can cause them to delay or avoid care or to decline interventions.

Socioeconomic disparities

In the United States, Black people have higher rates of poverty than Asian, Hispanic, and white individuals. This leaves many people socioeconomically vulnerable and, in many cases, without health insurance.

A lack of access to either quality healthcare, insurance that fully pays for treatment, or time off work to see a doctor can contribute to worse health outcomes.

Underlying health problems

Black individuals may be more likely than white people to have or develop certain health conditions other than cancer.

For example, Black males are more likely than non-Hispanic white males to have diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Having one of these conditions increases the risk of dying from prostate cancer.

Some evidence suggests that genetic differences may play a role in different cancer outcomes.

However, this claim remains controversial because race is a social construct, rather than a biological one. This means that genes are distributed across racial groups, so it is not possible to draw genetic conclusions based on race alone.

Certain cancers are more prevalent in Black individuals.

Common cancers in Black females

The most common cancers in Black females, and their percentage of the total number of cancers, are:

Common cancers in Black males

The most common cancers in Black males, and their percentage of the total number of cancers, are:

Cancer causes abnormal cells to grow out of control. The longer this growth continues unchecked, the more it can damage a person’s body. Later stage cancers are usually harder to treat, and they are associated with worse outcomes.

However, an early cancer diagnosis generally ensures that more treatment options are available. It also reduces the risk of dying of cancer, the number of side effects a person may experience, and the cost of treatment.

For many types of cancer, though, Black people face diagnosis delays.

For example, doctors generally diagnose breast cancer at a later stage in Black individuals. Research suggests that while 64% of white women with breast cancer receive an early diagnosis, just 54% of Black women with breast cancer do.

This suggests that diagnosis delays, rather than prevalence, play a role in breast cancer death disparities.

Living with cancer is challenging for anyone. However, support is particularly critical when a person faces institutional racism, the health effects of years of discrimination, doctors who may not be familiar with Black health, and a higher risk of death.

Support groups can help people in numerous ways, including:

  • recommending culturally competent doctors
  • offering strategies for managing symptoms
  • providing a sounding board and compassion
  • supporting people to advocate for themselves
  • cultivating strategies to deal with ineffective healthcare professionals or health systems

Local advocacy and civil rights groups may have their own cancer support groups, which individuals can contact for help. Some other support options include:

Black people with cancer face a number of obstacles, including racism in medicine and a healthcare system that treats white bodies as the default. These obstacles, along with different cancer patterns and diagnosis rates, claim thousands of lives each year.

Talking with friends or family members can help a person find a doctor who understands and cares about Black people with cancer. People can also speak up if they feel as though they are experiencing racism in a medical setting, and they can ask for a second opinion.

While individual strategies can save lives, the healthcare system must ultimately work to correct racial disparities and eliminate harmful biases.