Leading cancer research group unveils call to action to address cancer disparities

September 16, 2020
Dr. Chanita Hughes-Halbert, Hollings Cancer Center researcher
Dr. Chanita Hughes-Halbert served on the steering committee and participated in the virtual congressional briefing for the American Association for Cancer Research's inaugural Cancer Disparities Progress Report. Photo by Sarah Pack

Today, the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) released its inaugural Cancer Disparities Progress Report: Achieving the Bold Vision of Health Equity for Racial and Ethnic Minorities and Other Underserved Populations. MUSC Hollings Cancer Center researcher Chanita Hughes-Halbert, Ph.D., not only contributed to this first-of-its-kind report as a member of the steering committee, but she was part of the virtual congressional briefing that unveiled the report to the nation.

Hughes-Halbert said the report tracks the progress that has been made to understand and address cancer health disparities and highlights the multilevel determinants of racial and ethnic disparities in cancer risks and outcomes. “It underscores the importance of the continued efforts and investments that are needed to conduct transdisciplinary translational research that can transform our health care systems, public health programs and the communities in which we live.”

Among the findings in the report were:

  • African Americans have had the highest overall cancer death rate of any racial or ethnic group in the United States for more than four decades.
  • Hispanics have the lowest colorectal cancer screening rate of any racial or ethnic group in the United States.
  • American Indians/Alaska Natives have the lowest breast cancer screening rate of any racial or ethnic group in the United States.
  • Complex and interrelated factors contribute to cancer health disparities in the United States. Adverse differences in many, if not all, of these factors are directly influenced by structural and systemic racism.
  • Racial and ethnic minorities are severely underrepresented in clinical trials and understanding of how cancer develops in racial and ethnic minorities is significantly lacking.
  • Many of the U.S. population groups that experience cancer health disparities — in particular, racial and ethnic minorities — are also experiencing disparities related to coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Many of the factors driving COVID-19 disparities overlap with the factors that contribute to cancer health disparities.
  • Experts predict that the COVID-19 pandemic will exacerbate existing cancer health disparities as a result of the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on racial and ethnic minorities and other underserved populations.

John D. Carpten, Ph.D., chairman of both the AACR Cancer Disparities Progress Report 2020 Steering Committee and the AACR Minorities in Cancer Research Council, said in an AACR statement that the inaugural and historic progress report will provide a comprehensive baseline understanding of the progress that’s been made toward recognizing and eliminating cancer health disparities from the standpoint of biological factors, clinical management, population science, public policy and workforce diversity.

“This monumental report represents the collective effort of a number of the world’s foremost thought leaders in cancer health disparities research. It highlights progress, but it also initiates a vitally important call to action for all stakeholders to make advances toward the mitigation of cancer disparities for racial and ethnic minorities and other underserved populations.”

graphic showing the decline in disparity for overall cancer death rate between African Americans and whites 
The gap in the overall cancer death rate between African Americans and whites has decreased, but progress still needs to be made. More graphics from the report can be seen on the Hollings Cancer Center website. Image provided

The chart above shows an important trend in terms of the progress that has been made as a result of transdisciplinary and translational studies that have focused on identifying and addressing multilevel determinants of racial and ethnic disparities in cancer outcomes.

Unfortunately, progress has been slow, and the cost of all health disparities, including COVID-19 and cancer health disparities, in terms of premature deaths, lost productivity and the impact on communities of color, remains monumental and must be addressed. Hughes-Halbert, who holds the AT&T Distinguished Endowed Chair for Cancer Equity at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center, said there needs to be continued investment to fund basic science research, clinical initiatives and studies and population-based and behavioral science research to continue making progress to achieve cancer health equity.

screenshot of Dr. Chanita Hughes-Halbert speaking during the virtual Congressional briefing on Zoom 
Dr. Hughes-Halbert speaks during the virtual congressional briefing to unveil the report. Photo provided

“This is a critical time for the field of cancer health disparities where it is imperative that all stakeholders, which includes policy makers, regulators, payers, academic medical centers, health care providers, advocacy groups, public health organizations and patients, caregivers and family members, have to work together to ensure continued progress is made toward cancer health equity, especially during this unprecedented time of a global pandemic that has changed the way in which cancer is diagnosed and treated and how patients recover from this disease,” Hughes-Halbert explained.

The goal, she added, is to prioritize initiatives in cancer control so that individuals can live healthy lifestyles in healthy communities and support greater diversity and inclusion in the public health and health care workforce so that patients receive the right care at the right time.

“And we need to provide robust, sustained and predictable funding to the agencies and programs that are charged with reducing cancer health disparities through research that helps us to know how social conditions, psychological factors and cancer control behaviors influence the biological processes and mechanisms that can be targeted through therapeutic strategies and prevention efforts,” she said.

“Cancer health disparities is a priority for the country — when cancer outcomes improve among racial and ethnic minorities, we all benefit and improve.”