Worse Cancer Prognosis in African Americans Linked to Genetic Factors, Not Access to Care

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African Americans diagnosed with breast, ovarian, and prostate cancer have overall worse prognoses than people of other races with the same cancer type. Doctors have wondered whether these differences are the result of differences in access to medical care, and in the quality and consistency of medical care received, by African Americans. A study found that in the case of these three cancers, genetic factors -- not differences in quality of care or access to that care -- account for the worse prognoses.

The researchers reviewed the medical care and outcomes of nearly 20,000 adults diagnosed with a variety of cancer types. All of the adults received very consistent care because they were participating in carefully monitored clinical trials. Nearly 12% of these people were African Americans. The researchers found that even though care was consistent among all patients followed, regardless of race, the overall prognosis for three gender-related cancers -- breast, ovarian, and prostate cancers -- was worse among African Americans compared to that of other racial groups. For cancers that are not gender-related, the outcomes were the same.

Compared to women of other races, African American women are:

  • less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer
  • more likely to be diagnosed with advanced stage breast cancer, if diagnosed
  • more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer that is aggressive and harder to treat, if diagnosed
  • more likely to have breast cancer come back
  • more likely to die from breast cancer

Research confirms findings of other research, which found that these differences in breast cancer are mostly due to genetic differences between African American women and women of other racial types. Still, other research shows that when care is not consistently controlled and monitored as it was for the patients followed in the study reviewed here, African Americans diagnosed with a variety of cancer types that are not gender-related (for example, colon or lung cancer) have worse prognoses that people of other racial types. This suggests that the poorer prognoses of African Americans diagnosed with cancer are, at least in part, related to differences in medical care access and quality.

EVERY woman with breast cancer -- no matter her age, height, weight, ethnicity, or medical history -- is unique. And the same is true of every breast cancer. The challenge is to better understand the differences in breast cancer biology. Researchers hope to develop tests that can give us a fuller, more complete picture of a cancer's genetic makeup. Then treatments can be prescribed that are personalized for each cancer.

Until that time, screening is a good place to start eliminating the differences. Breast cancer that is diagnosed early is typically easier to treat and offers the best survival chances.

Regular screening for breast cancer, including breast self-exam and mammograms, is important for everyone. When you have a mammogram, make sure your doctor tells you about the results. If you don't hear something, call the office. If you're not sure what the results mean, ask your doctor right away. If cost or scheduling problems are making it hard for you to schedule a mammogram or a follow-up visit with your doctor, ask for help. It's YOUR health and YOUR future and you deserve the best care possible.

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