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Genes, Poverty: Cancer Risks in Blacks

New Research Shows Race Itself Not to Blame
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

April 2, 2006 (Washington) -- At a time when blacks share a disproportionate share of the nation's cancer burden, new research presented here suggests that poverty and genetics may be at least partly to blame.

"These studies dispel the myth that it's all about race," says Lucile L. Adams-Campbell, PhD, director of the Howard University Cancer Center in Washington. "Health disparities go beyond color and ethnicity."

Nearly 138,000 new cancer cases occurred among blacks in 2005, and about 63,000 blacks died of cancer last year, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). Black men are particularly hard hit, with a 20% higher rate of cancers and a 40% higher rate of death from all cancers combined compared with white men.

Yet blacks make up about 13% of the U.S. population based on U.S. census figures, says the ACS.

The new research was presented here at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research.

Poor, Uninsured Women at Higher Risk

In one study, researchers found that women with breast cancer are more likely to have aggressive, hard-to-treat tumors if they live in poverty -- regardless of race.

"African-American women are more commonly poor and uninsured, so some studies suggest socioeconomic status, not race, is associated with a poor prognostic profile," says researcher Keith A. Dookeran, MBBS, of Stroger Hospital of Cook County in Illinois.

To test that hypothesis, the researchers studied 341 black and 94 white women treated at Cook County Hospital, a public hospital that serves largely poor, uninsured people. Fewer than 10% of women in both groups had health insurance.

After taking into account other risk factors for breast cancer, 40% of women of both races had highly aggressive tumors that are associated with poor survival, he says.

"These women were all treated at one hospital with standardized screening and treatment plans," Dookeran tells WebMD. "It was not their race but the fact that they were poor, largely uninsured, and of low socioeconomic status that accounts for their poor prognosis."

Genes Drive Bleak Outlook

Another study suggests that genetics may play a major role in explaining differences in breast cancer outcomes among black and white women.

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