African Americans in our state are more likely to die from cancer than any other population. That is according to a first-ever statewide study of deaths after diagnosis, which was conducted by the University of South Carolina Arnold School of Public Health, and led by Dr. James Hebert.
Hebert is also the director of the Statewide Cancer Prevention and Control Program in South Carolina. He says this is the first time this kind of study has ever been done in terms of mapping within a geopolitical unit like a state. The research is featured in the June issue of Cancer, the Journal of the American Cancer Society.
He says the Pee Dee shows some of the worst numbers, but the rates for the rest of the state are not much better. “It’s a huge problem and it’s pretty much statewide. These racial differences are pretty consistently seen across all cancer sites (in SC), certainly for cancer as a whole in virtually everywhere in the state. There are places that are particularly bad, but they’re not dramatically worse than any other place in the state—when comparing to the country as a whole,” says Hebert.
The largest disparities are for oral, breast or prostate cancers. Blacks have almost twice the mortality-to-incidence ratios in those than whites.
The breast cancer rates are interesting, says Hebert, especially in light of the fact that the incidence rate in the state for blacks is about 15 percent lower than it is for European-Americans in South Carolina. The same imbalance occurs with prostate cancer, he says.
Though this study does not ascribe cause, Hebert offers the observation based on other research, that African-Americans are getting a particularly virulent type of cancer.
“Within a given stage of cancer, stage describing the size of the tumor and how much it’s spread, blacks tend to have much higher grade or more aggressive tumors than do whites. So even after accounting for the stage of the disease, the cancers tend to be nastier.
And they tend to be more extremely nasty at very young ages,” says Hebert.
The next steps, he says, are to pinpoint and studying the problem “at a smaller level” and then to involve the community in solving the problem.
“It isn’t just about cancer,” he says, “because if you are at high risk of getting and dying of cancer, you are at high risk for many other things.”