Cancer: Risks for African American women

Apr 29, 2009 at 7:38 a.m. ET

African Americans have the highest death rate and shortest survival rate for most cancers of any racial or ethnic group in the US, according to the American Cancer Society. And for African American women, the death rate for all cancers is 16 percent higher than for white women.

Why the disparity?

Researchers agree that the causes of these inequalities are complex and far reaching. No single factor (such as education or income) can fully explain why the gap is so large. What they do know is more African American women live below the poverty line, are uninsured and have less education than other groups. They also have less access to medical care and healthful foods, like fruits and vegetables.

Furthermore, if African American women are diagnosed with cancer, they're less likely to receive proper or even adequate care. Another concern: Scientists believe African American women are predisposed to developing certain forms of cancer, as well as more aggressive tumors (particularly in the breast and lung).

Specific cancer risks

African American women have a higher risk of developing the following four cancers than any other female ethnic group in the US:


Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer and the second most common cause of cancer death among African American women.


According to the American Cancer Society, the incidence of cervical cancer is 32 percent higher in African American women than for white women. They're also twice as likely to die from the disease.


Lung cancer kills more African Americans than any other type of cancer. The good news is that the death rate is rising more slowly than in the past.

Colon and rectum

The survival rate of African American women from colon or rectal cancer is beginning to improve, but incidence remains high. An estimated 7,120 African Americans will die from the disease in 2009.

What you can do

  1. Get screened. Screening is the key to finding signs of cancer early on, when it's easier to treat (so are self-exams).
  2. Get educated. Take control of your health! Learn about the risks that you face, as well as how you can help prevent and stave off the disease.
  3. Get advocating. This disparity between black and white women is unacceptable. Do your part by supporting local organizations who are trying to put an end to this kind of medical inequality.

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