We have seen incredible advances in cancer research and treatment in recent years. However, cancer incidence and mortality disproportionately affect certain communities within our society. For example, African-American men are more than twice as likely to die of prostate cancer compared to men of all other racial backgrounds. It is likely that no single factor between groups — such as gender, ethnicity, disability, socioeconomic status or genetics — is the sole cause of these cancer disparities. Rather, the combination of multiple factors can result in drastic differences in cancer outcome.
Addressing community needs
A major focus during my term as President of the American Association for Cancer Research is to facilitate progress to eliminate these disparities. An individual’s race, geographic location, or income should not dictate their cancer narrative. We must find ways to ensure that all individuals, no matter their background, benefit from the latest advances in cancer research.
A key element of cancer prevention, treatment, and survival is easy access to high-quality health care. The unfortunate reality remains that the disparities in America limit many of us from receiving adequate cancer care. The implementation of focus groups may help to address the disparities in screening and prevention, reducing the cancer burden in minority populations. Moreover, two individuals with the same cancer may have drastically different outcomes based on their ability to access cancer care. Barriers to treatment, whether it is lack of transportation, time or money can result in life-changing effects. It is important to focus on eliminating these barriers to reduce cancer health disparities.
It’s in the genes
Another approach to addressing cancer health disparities is to better understand the underlying genetic differences in tumors found in underrepresented populations through genome-wide sequencing. In recent years, we have been learning to leverage genomic “big data” resources to guide precision cancer therapies. By sequencing the tumors of patients from underrepresented populations and studying them in conjunction with clinical outcomes, we hope to discover the biological factors that drive tumor development and treatment responses in specific communities. Just announced, the AACR and its partners will create a sustainable platform that will sequence tumors from African- American cancer patients free of charge, and add these data to our existing banks so that researchers can search for answers that can explain and possibly prevent these disparate outcomes.
Addressing inequality in cancer outcomes should become a priority to make progress as a community. To counteract cancer health disparities, we should focus on both the underlying differences in tumor biology between populations as well as enacting policy initiatives that facilitate uniform access to treatment.