When my mother was 46, she was diagnosed with young-onset colorectal cancer. She died at age 51, and I learned a hard truth: health care in America is not a human right. Today, nearly 10 years after my mama passed, the COVID-19 pandemic has lifted the veil of inequality in America, underscoring the fact that there are two health care systems in our country — one for those who have access to preventive services and quality treatment, and one for everyone else.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the disparities that exist in cancer outcomes. Black Americans have the highest death rate and shortest survival of any racial and ethnic group for most cancers. We must demand better. April is Minority Health Month and I want to shed light on the inequities in our health care system and share information on how to best advocate for your health.
Like too many Black Americans, I know the failures of our health care system because my family has lived them. Socioeconomic disparities, lack of medical coverage, barriers to early detection and screening, and unequal access to improvements in cancer treatments are obstacles that are taking the lives of Black Americans. There may also be biological differences that underlie these health disparities, and we need more research to foster better understanding that could lead to improved detection and treatment.
In Georgia, cancer is the second-leading cause of death. According to the American Cancer Society, it is estimated there will be 58,060 new cancer cases and 17,760 deaths in Georgia in 2021. Black communities are most vulnerable. The Georgia Department of Public Health reports that Black men in Georgia are 14% more likely to be diagnosed with cancer and 31% more likely to die from these diseases than white men. Similarly, while white women have a higher incidence of breast cancer than Black women, Black women are more likely to die of the disease.
Early detection plays a critically important role here. With routine cancer screening — an examination or test when you are not experiencing any signs or symptoms — you can detect cancers in the earliest stages, when there are more options for treatment and better outcomes are more likely. In some cases, screening can also be preventive. For example, if you have a colonoscopy to screen for colorectal cancer, your doctor can find and remove precancerous polyps before they ever develop into cancer. The five-year survival rate for cancers detected early is 89%; in late stages, it is 21%.
Unfortunately, colorectal cancer screening rates for Black Americans are not where they need to be. Black adults over age 50 are less likely than whites of the same age group to have been screened for colorectal cancer and have a higher mortality rate when they are diagnosed. We can change this, but it will take all of us having uncomfortable conversations and advocating for our health —together.
During the pandemic, many of us had to put off or reschedule routine cancer screenings, but putting off these screenings can have dire consequences. Health care providers have implemented new setups and precautions so you can get screened safely, and now it is time to get those screenings back on the books.
A Prevent Cancer Foundation survey found that 52% of American adults who had an appointment scheduled have missed, postponed and/or canceled routine medical appointments because of COVID-19; Black Americans are most likely to have missed those appointments.
If you missed a routine mammogram, Pap test, colorectal cancer screening, lung cancer screening, skin check or dental appointment, act now to get that appointment back on the books. Make an appointment and keep it. Learn more about screening guidelines at preventcancer.org and talk to your health care provider about your risk factors and screening options to determine the best tests for you. The best test is the one that gets done.
U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta, represents Georgia’s 5th Congressional District.