How cancer affects disadvantaged groups in the US

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Charlotte Edmond, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • The risk of dying from cancer in the US has fallen, but there is a disparity in health outcomes.
  • This is caused by socioeconomic disadvantage and persistent structural racism, the American Cancer Society says.
  • Black people have the highest cancer death rate and shortest survival time of any racial or ethnic group in the US.
  • Technology offers the potential to better diagnose, treat and prevent cancer in the future.

The risk of dying from cancer in the US has fallen over the last three decades, but race, ethnicity, socioeconomic background and location continue to have an impact on occurrence and outcomes.

Statistics from the American Cancer Society paint a bleak picture. Cancer survival rates are lower for Black people than for White people in the US, for virtually all forms of the disease.

Black women have a 41% higher death rate from breast cancer than White women do, despite their incidence rate being 4% lower.

Over a quarter of US men without a high school education smoked cigarettes in 2019, compared to just 6% of men with a college degree. Smoking continues to be by far the biggest cause of lung cancer.

American Indians and Alaska Natives have a particularly high liver cancer incidence – more than double that seen in White people.

Many of these differences can be attributed to persistent inequalities which make accessing high-quality healthcare difficult for some people. The American Cancer Society calls out “historical and persistent structural racism in the US experienced by all people of colour” as being the cause of many of these disparities.

Health and healthcare

How is the World Economic Forum bringing data-driven healthcare to life?

The application of “precision medicine” to save and improve lives relies on good-quality, easily-accessible data on everything from our DNA to lifestyle and environmental factors. The opposite to a one-size-fits-all healthcare system, it has vast, untapped potential to transform the treatment and prediction of rare diseases—and disease in general.

But there is no global governance framework for such data and no common data portal. This is a problem that contributes to the premature deaths of hundreds of millions of rare-disease patients worldwide.

The World Economic Forum’s Breaking Barriers to Health Data Governance initiative is focused on creating, testing and growing a framework to support effective and responsible access – across borders – to sensitive health data for the treatment and diagnosis of rare diseases.

The data will be shared via a “federated data system”: a decentralized approach that allows different institutions to access each other’s data without that data ever leaving the organization it originated from. This is done via an application programming interface and strikes a balance between simply pooling data (posing security concerns) and limiting access completely.

The project is a collaboration between entities in the UK (Genomics England), Australia (Australian Genomics Health Alliance), Canada (Genomics4RD), and the US (Intermountain Healthcare).

Higher cancer rates, lower survival rates

Black people have the highest cancer death rate and shortest survival of any racial or ethnic group in the US for most cancers. Black men also have the highest cancer incidence rate.

An infographic showing leading sites of new cancer cases and deaths among Blacks in the US
Black people have the highest cancer death rate in the US. Image: American Cancer Society

Social, economic and cultural differences are the driving factors in these disparities, rather than any biological differences. There continues to be unequal access in the US to opportunities and resources such as work, wealth, healthy food, education and housing – and these all affect health outcomes.

For example, Hispanic men and women are the least likely to have health insurance of any major racial or ethnic group in the US.

Cultural factors such as language, values and traditions also influence behaviours, beliefs and approaches to illness. It has been suggested that improving health professionals’ understanding of these factors could help reduce health disparities.

Correlated with this is the disproportionately high burden of other diseases affecting minority groups, which has a significant impact on cancer survival rates.

Historically, death rates for Black people have been higher than for White people for heart disease, stroke, influenza, pneumonia, diabetes, hypertension, HIV/AIDS, kidney disease and homicide. This means the difference in life expectancy between Black and White people is greater than 4.5 years for men, and three years for women.

It is still unclear what impact the pandemic has had on cancer rates, but there is plenty of research suggesting that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected already disadvantaged groups. For example, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests the Hispanic population experienced a three year decline in life expectancy between 2019 and 2020.

Progress on lung cancer

Cancer is the second largest cause of death in the US, with over 1,900,000 new cases and 609,000 deaths projected in 2022. The leading cause of cancer death, lung cancer, is expected to kill 350 people a day in the country.

There has, however, been progress on lung cancer, with a sharp decline in the number of people with advanced stages of the disease. More people are being diagnosed with the disease at an earlier stage and therefore living longer. Diagnosis and drug improvements have also helped.

A chart showing US cancer death rate versus counts for all cancer types combined between 1990-2016
While more people are dying of cancer, the death rate is falling. Image: American Cancer Society

Progress on some other cancer types has stalled, though, with improvements in diagnosis and treatment of both breast and prostate cancer slowing.

An avoidable diagnosis?

According to research by the American Cancer Society, many of the projected new cancers are potentially avoidable. This includes the cancers caused by smoking, and other types where obesity, lack of exercise, alcohol and poor diet play a role.

A diagram showing cancer care value pathways
The potential cancer care interventions offered by the fourth industrial revolution have been mapped according to viability and impact. Image: World Economic Forum

Harnessing new technologies to better treat, diagnose and prevent disease is a major challenge in the coming years.

The Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in India has recently published a strategy for tackling cancer in the country, taking advantage of digital technology. It has identified four critical gaps holding back further progress. These are: early diagnosis and continuation of care; knowledge and skills development; financing solutions; and interoperable, standardized data.

Data is a major challenge, not least because there is limited uptake of technology outside key urban areas, and the medical profession in India has yet to embrace digital health records. The Centre recommends the creation of an Oncology Master Record to capture data from patients at every stage.

Health and healthcare

How is the World Economic Forum bringing data-driven healthcare to life?

The application of “precision medicine” to save and improve lives relies on good-quality, easily-accessible data on everything from our DNA to lifestyle and environmental factors. The opposite to a one-size-fits-all healthcare system, it has vast, untapped potential to transform the treatment and prediction of rare diseases—and disease in general.

But there is no global governance framework for such data and no common data portal. This is a problem that contributes to the premature deaths of hundreds of millions of rare-disease patients worldwide.

The World Economic Forum’s Breaking Barriers to Health Data Governance initiative is focused on creating, testing and growing a framework to support effective and responsible access – across borders – to sensitive health data for the treatment and diagnosis of rare diseases.

The data will be shared via a “federated data system”: a decentralized approach that allows different institutions to access each other’s data without that data ever leaving the organization it originated from. This is done via an application programming interface and strikes a balance between simply pooling data (posing security concerns) and limiting access completely.

The project is a collaboration between entities in the UK (Genomics England), Australia (Australian Genomics Health Alliance), Canada (Genomics4RD), and the US (Intermountain Healthcare).

It also suggests that other solutions to India’s cancer burden could include greater uptake of telemedicine, skilling of field workers, and the use of AI in insurance to help customers access suitable coverage more affordably.

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