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Some Progress But Much More To Be Done To Address Racial Disparities In Cancer

Dr. Eliseo Pérez-Stable speaks about the narrowing of the cancer racial disparity gap at Case Comprehensive Cancer Center. [ideastream / Lecia Bushak]
Dr. Eliseo Pérez-Stable speaks about the narrowing of the cancer racial disparity gap at Case Comprehensive Cancer Center. (Photo: ideastream / Lecia Bushak)

The overall cancer death rate is declining — and the racial disparity gap is also starting to close, according to a recent report from the American Cancer Society. But there’s more work to be done, and researchers gathered in Cleveland this March to talk about how to better address cancer disparities.

Improvements in cancer treatments, earlier screening, and lower tobacco rates have all contributed to the decline in cancer deaths, as well as shrinking the racial disparity gap, doctors said at the annual Cancer Disparities Symposium at Case Comprehensive Cancer Center.

But inequalities remain when it comes to access to care, says Dr. Eliseo Pérez-Stable, Director of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

"As we develop better and more specific biologicals, and the cost exceeds a normal person’s budget, a lot of families just cannot afford that," Pérez-Stable said. "This is going to be increasingly an issue. We need to figure out how to do a better job of getting equitable care to our population."

Pérez-Stable also emphasized prevention and said that targeting tobacco use is a key way to address cancer disparities.

In Cleveland, tobacco use continues to be higher than the national average, says Monica Webb-Hooper, Director of the Office of Cancer Disparities Research at the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“The biggest risk factor for 15 cancers and counting is tobacco use,” Webb-Hooper said. “And we know tobacco use in Cleveland is extremely high compared to the national average. So if we were really able to address tobacco use, I think we would see as a positive consequence of that a dramatic decrease in cancer risk, in cancer incidence, and mortality in this community.”

But the science of health disparities is still emerging, Webb-Hooper said, and it's important to educate researchers on the best methodologies for studying disparities.

"The study of disparities transcends race," Webb-Hooper said. "You have economic issues, geographic differences, the LGBT community also faces disparities, rural communities, so it’s really a problem where we have to look at demographic sub-groups, and the intersections across those sub-groups, which is why it’s so complicated.”

lecia.bushak@ideastream.org | 216-916-6062