Cancer is a disease in which abnormal cells uncontrollably divide and spread through the blood and lymphatic system. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that cancer is the second leading cause of death in Americans after heart disease. More than 100 different types of cancer exists.
Research from the American Cancer Society shows that African Americans suffer the highest death rates and shortest survival rates of any racial group in the U.S. The most prevalent forms of cancer in the African American community include colorectal, lung, breast and prostate.
There are a number of risk factors that could lead to your development of cancer. Some, like diet, sun exposure and tobacco or alcohol use, can be controlled. Others however, such as age and family history, cannot.
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With colorectal cancer, cancer starts in either the colon or the rectum. Most colorectal cancers begin as a growth, called a polyp, which first develops in the inner lining of the colon or rectum. Polyps can be removed before they become cancer.
Symptoms of colorectal cancer can include diarrhea or constipation, rectal bleeding, blood in your stool, and abdominal cramps. However at first, there may be few or no symptoms at all. It is crucial to have regular screenings, regardless of symptoms. If you are 50 years of age or older, you must get screened. Colorectal cancer is often treatable when detected at an early stage.
Screening tests for colorectal cancer include a colonoscopy, a sigmoidoscopy, a fecal occult blood test, double contrast barium enema, and a CT colonography.
According to the National Cancer Institute, African Americans are more likely to develop the disease and die from it compared to any other group in the U.S. Research from the American Cancer Society (ACS) shows the death rates are about 45% higher in African Americans than in Caucasians. This is due largely to the fact that African Americans are more likely to be diagnosed in later stages. Lack of health education and awareness plays a role.
The ACS lists these risk factors that may increase your chance of getting polyps or colorectal cancer:
Risk Factors You Cannot Change
- Age – your risk gets higher as you get older
- Having had colorectal cancer or certain kinds of polyps before
- Having a history of ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease
- Family history of colorectal cancer
- Race or ethnic background, such as being African American or Ashkenazi
- Type 2 diabetes
- Certain family syndromes, like familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) or hereditary non-polyposis colon cancer (HNPCC, also called Lynch syndrome)
Risk Factors Linked to Things You Do
- Certain types of diets: a diet that is high in red meats (beef, lamb, or liver) and processed meats (like hot dogs, bologna, and lunch meat) can increase your colorectal cancerrisk. Cooking meats at very high heat (frying, broiling, or grilling) can create chemicals that might increase cancer risk.
- Lack of exercise
- Being very overweight (or obese)
- Heavy alcohol use
Lung cancer kills the most people every year in the U.S. out of all other types of cancer. With the disease, cancer starts in the lungs and could spread to other organs. You are at greater risk of developing lung cancer if you smoke, are exposed to secondhand smoke or radon, or if your family has a history of the disease.
According to the American Lung Association, lung cancer is more common among African Americans than any other U.S. population group. African American men are also 37% more likely to get lung cancer than Caucasian men (despite lower exposure to cigarette smoke), are more likely to wait longer to seek treatment after being diagnosed, and are more likely to get diagnosed at later stages.
A low dose CT scan is recommended to screen for lung cancer. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force suggests yearly screening for people who have a history of heavy smoking, who currently smoke or have quit in the past 15 years, and who are between 55-80 years old.
Most people with lung cancer don’t have symptoms until the disease has advanced. The Centers for Disease Control lists the following as possible symptoms:
- Coughing that gets worse or doesn’t go away
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Coughing up blood
- Feeling very tired all the time
- Weight loss with no known cause
There are different ways to treat lung cancer, depending on the type and how far it has spread. Treatment can include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and targeted therapy.
Breast cancer is the uncontrolled growth of cells in the breast, which has developed into a malignant tumor. The disease is always caused by a genetic abnormality; however, only 5-10% of cancers are due to inherited family traits, according to Breastcancer.org. Rather, 85-90% are due to abnormalities that come from general aging.
The American Cancer Society lists that any of the following unusual changes in the breast can be a symptom of breast cancer:
- Swelling of all or part of the breast
- Skin irritation or dimpling
- Breast pain
- Nipple pain or the nipple turning inward
- Redness, scaliness, or thickening of the nipple or breast skin
- Nipple discharge other than breast milk
- Lump in the underarm area
Although breast cancer affects women of all ages and ethnicities, African American women have the highest death rate from breast cancer than any other group of women in the U.S, according to the Office on Women’s Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In addition, the African American Breast Cancer Alliance states that African American women under the age of 40 tend to develop more aggressive and deadlier tumors.
Information from the Office on Women’s Health states this is because by the time the tumor is discovered, it is more advanced, and harder to treat. This increased death rate may be caused by factors including lack of health care and insurance, not understanding the significance of mammograms, and distrust of the health care system.
Treatment options usually include a combination of surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy and targeted therapy. Breast cancer survival rates have increased over the past two decades. Statistics from the American Cancer Society show between 1990 and 2010, breast cancer mortality declined by 34% among women in the U.S.
The key to fighting this disease, like many other cancers, is to detect it in its early stages. Women of all ages are encouraged to get annual mammograms and perform self-examinations, which involves looking at and feeling your breasts to check for abnormalities.
Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in American men, with the exception of skin cancer. The prostate is a gland that is part of the male reproductive system.
Several factors could increase your chances of getting prostate cancer. One is age, as men ages 40 and older are more prone to developing the disease. Others include family history and race. According to the Prostate Cancer Foundation, African American men are more likely to develop prostate cancer and 2.5 times more likely to die from it than Caucasian men. This is believed to be caused by a combination of lifestyle choices, genetic differences, nutritional habits and medical care.
Some men with prostate cancer may have no symptoms. For others, symptoms are different per individual. The Centers for Disease Control has the following list:
- Difficulty starting urination
- Weak or interrupted flow of urine
- Frequent urination, especially at night
- Difficulty emptying the bladder completely
- Pain or burning during urination
- Blood in the urine or semen
- Pain in the back, hips, or pelvis that doesn’t go away
- Painful ejaculation
Common tests to screen for prostate cancer include a digital rectal exam and a prostate specific antigen (PSA) test. It is best to discuss screening options with your doctor, as recommendations vary.
Prostate cancer treatment can include surgery, radiation therapy, and hormone therapy. According to the American Cancer Society, most men diagnosed with prostate cancer do not die from it.