A recently released report from the American Cancer Society (ACS) found that while cancer incidence and mortality rates have declined among African-Americans over the last two decades, cancer mortality rates remain stubbornly higher in this population compared with whites. The report, titled Cancer Facts & Figures for African Americans, 2013-2014, identified positive trends for African-Americans as well as areas where significant disparities in cancer outcomes persist.

The most favorable news in the report is that cancer death rates declined faster for African-American men than for any other ethnic or racial group, helping to shrink the disparity between African-American and white men. Nevertheless, overall cancer mortality remains 33% higher among African-American men compared with white men, driven primarily by higher death rates from cancers of the lung, prostate, colon, rectum, and of the pancreas. 

The decline in cancer death rates among African-American men is mostly due to a decrease in the rate of death from smoking-related cancers. The disparity in lung cancer death rates between African-American men and white men of all ages has declined by half since 1990, and has been eliminated among adults between the ages of 20 and 39 years. Although significantly more African-American men than white men smoked in the past, the prevalence of tobacco use has declined faster among African-American men and now is similar to that of white men. Fewer African-American high school students than white students smoke, suggesting that the favorable trend in death from smoking-related cancer may continue.

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African-American women have a 16% higher risk of death from cancer than white women, despite having a lower overall risk of developing cancer, particularly breast and lung cancers; however, their death rates for breast, colorectal, and pancreatic cancer are higher than those for white women. Cancer death rates declined by approximately the same amount in African-American and white women.

Cancer preventative measures and cancer screening rates are consistently lower among African-Americans than among whites, as noted by the following trends:

  • More African-American girls than white girls initiate vaccination against human papillomavirus (HPV), but more white girls than African-American girls complete the three-vaccine series.
  • Although equal numbers of African-American and white women have had mammograms, African-American women have longer intervals between mammograms; in addition, the data shows African-American women do not follow up about suspicious results as quickly as white women do.
  • The proportion of African-Americans who report having had a recent screening for colorectal cancer has increased from about 17% in 1987 to 56% today, but still lags behind the 62% of whites who report a recent screening.