Racial cancer gaps persist in CT

Recently, the American Cancer Society provided a briefing called Report of Cancer 2018. The article documented that over the past decade, the cancer incidence rate was stable for women and declined by approximately 2 percent annually for men, while the overall cancer death rate declined by 1.5 annually. Further, the combined death rate dropped continuously from 1995 to 2015 by a total of about 20 percent.

However, of significant concern to the CT State Conference of Branches of the NAACP Health Committee, somewhat buried in the report is the statement that, after all adjustments for stage of diagnosis, the relative risk of death after diagnosis is 33 percent higher in African-Americans than nonminorities.

This disparity is even more striking for American Indians, who are 50 percent more likely than nonminorities to die from cancer. Further, the report stated that African-Americans are more likely than nonminorities to be diagnosed with cancer at an advanced stage and also have a lower rate of five-year survival for most cancer types. The report further documents that African-American women have a 7 percent lower incidence of breast cancer compared to nonminority women but have a 30 percent higher rate of mortality. The same degree of disparity exists with prostate cancer, with nonminority men having a mortality rate of 18.2 versus African Americans at 40.8.

The briefing concludes that cancer occurrence and outcomes vary between racial and ethnic groups largely due to inequalities in wealth that lead to differences in exposure to risk factors as well as barriers to high-quality cancer care, prevention efforts, early detection and environmental factors.

The CT State Conference of Branches of the NAACP Health Committee has firsthand experience in the knowledge that minority groups in the U.S. are more likely to be poor, medically underserved and underinsured, which impedes early screening and access.

The report also goes on to compare what is called the Death Rate Ratio, which for any specific cancer provides a comparison of mortality rates between nonminorities and African-Americans by state. Connecticut has a DRR of 1.06 where the neighboring state of Massachusetts has a DDR of 0.87, demonstrating the state of Massachusetts has no significant racial disparity relative to cancer deaths.

The fact that Massachusetts has universal health care, which strongly correlates to the relative lack of excessive morbidity and mortality and no significant documented racial gap, underscores and highlights our concern. The CT State Conference of the NAACP is resolved through new and old partnerships to address the excessive mortality of minorities in the state of Connecticut.

The fact that many deaths are driven by inequities of access — resulting in hundreds of cancer-related deaths of minorities that could of been avoided and prevented, since cancer by itself does not drive this disparity — underpins the continued immoral racial cancer gap in Connecticut, which we are committed to address with the full support of every progressive citizens in our state. There are many lessons to be learned based on the wealth of this state both economically, academically and morally that men and woman should not die prematurely due to preventable and addressable factors in our control.

We are pleased that the Yale School of Epidemiology and Public Health, lead by Dean Sten Vermund and his associated partners, has agreed to work with the CT State Conference of the NAACP Heath Committee to pull together other vested partners from across the state to action. However, we are also calling on the support and moral commitment and outcry from all Connecticut citizens who have seen cancer deaths firsthand and understand the impact of cancer deaths on thousands of families based to a large extent the socioeconomic status of too many citizens.

We will work with any and all parties to develop and improve the health care infrastructure to address and minimize the social determinants in order to diminish avoidable and preventable losses of mothers, sisters, fathers and brothers as a national model.

Connecticut can do better, and we believe with every citizen’s collective support Connecticut will do better. Every state resident knows the sorrow related to cancer deaths of family members and the loss of a loved one.

We now have a report that documents this racial cancer gap on our watch. We must advocate collectively for change to assure that no family should suffer needlessly, especially when many of these cancer deaths have been documented to be avoidable and preventable.

James E. Rawlings is health chair of the Connecticut State Conference of NAACP Branches.