February is both Black History Month and National Cancer Prevention Month, which makes it a perfect time for providing insight into the high incidence of cancer among African Americans.
This month — and every month — should raise awareness of the types of cancer that impact Black people the most as well as preventive measures and proper treatment.
For example, Black and white women are diagnosed with breast cancer at the same rate, but Black women are 40% more likely to die from the disease according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As for Black men, they are twice as likely to die of prostate cancer and two and a half times likely to die from stomach cancer as white men, according to the U.S Office of Minority Health. Cancer is the second leading cause of death among Black people.
The U.S has made strides against cancer in the last 20 years but Black America continues to be left behind.
Dr. Veronica B. Ajewole, associate professor in the Department of Pharmacy Practice at Texas Southern University, spoke with the Defender about recommendations for cancer prevention.
Defender: Why is cancer still a major topic of disparity among Black people compared to other races in the U.S.?
Ajewole: It’s unfortunate that cancer still remains a major topic of disparity among ethnic minorities…I think it’s very timely for us to shed some light on these trends of incidences [the number of new cancers of a specific site/type occurring in a specified population during a year], trends of mortality and unfavorable outcomes…to see what we can do differently. Basically, the incidences and mortality of cancer are multi-factorial.
[There are factors] that put ethnic minority populations at a disadvantage globally to where by the time the cancer is diagnosed, most patients are at an aggressive state or later stage of treatment.
Genetic disposition for example; there is little information that is known regarding the genetic makeup of African Americans or ethnic minority populations that can help influence the development of appropriate clinical treatment options to address any genetic disposition that can be targeted.
In cancer care, we are leaning toward personalized medicine and the only way to know if it will work, you’ll need to have enough information at the stage of medication development. And stages of treatments (such as chemotherapy) are in multiple stages.
When scientists go into the lab to develop these treatment options, tissues cell lines from Caucasians are more available compared to tissue cell lines for African American or ethnic minority women. If at the (developmental) stage we don’t have enough representation of tissue cell lines in the lab, then we can’t tell effectively what drug would work for this population.
When the drugs move from lab into clinical trials, the representation of ethnic minorities is way below what you consider acceptable (stats are reported in single digits or not reported at all). If a drug is not tested in a community that truly represents the population impacted by the diseases, then it makes it difficult to justify that the medication could work.
When we look at environmental factors, most ethnic populations tend to live in marginalized communities. We are all familiar with red lining? Those living close to a factory where a patient will be predisposed to exposure to environmental pollutants over time can lead to certain types of cancers.
[Lack of] trust is another issue. Look at the Tuskegee issue and the historical events that widened the gap of mistrust [in the healthcare system] that make it uncomfortable to seek care.
DN: Read what measures Black people should take for early detection
________________________END PRINT COPY_______________________
Preventive measures the Black community should take
Stand up and advocate for [yourself]. If you ever find yourself in a work environment that is not promoting [good] health, then be an advocate about it. Speak to your neighbor. Speak to someone in your circle of influence. Talk to grandma, grandpa, uncles, and check in on them and remind them to go for screenings.
Adapt a healthy life style
Obesity and smoking are some modifiable risk factors — anything that is genetic is not necessarily modifiable, but we have risk factors that can be modified.
Knowledge is power. We should not just rely on information from the barbershop or friends. Seek out information in the right places because misinformation can be dangerous especially in this day and age with social media. Some people post information that is inappropriate and continues to widen the gap of mistrust.
Speak to your primary care physician
Connect with your PCP to seek out medical information…When you ask healthcare providers questions they should give information in a non-biased manner.
Contribute to science
Contribute to the data and be more open-minded. If an individual needs a biopsy and is asked (by a medical professional) to keep a sample of tissue for future research, that type of situation allows that individual to go through a consenting process. Every healthcare organization now has a solid system in place through the institutional review board to ensure patient consent is obtained. That would help inform the next generation of experts on drug development. That is a big contribution to science and to the future that we would not have access to.