12/06/2011 07:36 pm ET | Updated Feb 05, 2012

Lung Cancer and the Black Community

Health statistics tell an ugly story about Black America. African Americans are more likely to die of heart disease, stroke, and HIV/AIDS than any other population group. So too with cancer. Take a look around a cancer clinic waiting room. Overall, the black patients are 25 percent more likely to die from cancer than the white ones.

As if this weren't bad enough, the picture is even bleaker for the leading cause of cancer death among all Americans -- lung cancer. Within the black community, lung cancer kills more men and women than any other form of cancer, and causes more deaths than breast and prostate cancer combined.

As November -- Lung Cancer Awareness Month -- ends, black Americans need to consider the leading cause of cancer death in our community, and what we each can do to stop it.

The first step is awareness.

By leagues, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in America. Lung cancer kills three times more Americans each year than any other form of cancer -- 160,000 in 2011 alone.

If the overall statistics are bad, the numbers for African-Americans are even worse. Of all population groups, black men suffer the most from lung cancer. Despite smoking at about the same rate as white men (the group with the second highest prevalence rate), African-American men are 37 percent more likely to develop lung cancer than white men, and 22 percent more likely to die from it.

African-American men and women who have never smoked are also more likely to die from lung cancer than are white men and women who never smoked. Perhaps this has something to do with our health care system. The American Cancer Society reports that even when lung cancer is diagnosed early, African-Americans are less likely to receive surgery (their best option for survival) than their white counterparts, even when controlling for socioeconomic status.

The final nails in the coffin, so to speak, are the survival rates for black lung cancer patients. Lung cancer's population-wide five-year survival rate hovers at an abysmal 15.6 percent. This number is even lower among African-Americans: 13 percent for men and women combined, and only 11.6 percent for men.

How did things get so bad?

Part of the problem is the lack of screening tools. Lung cancer is most often diagnosed in its later stages, when it is harder to treat with surgery and chemotherapy. As a result, more than half of lung cancer sufferers are expected to die within a year of diagnosis, and 85 percent within five years. These shocking death tolls mean that few survivors are left to tell their stories, advocate, and mobilize.

Compounding lung cancer's lethality is a crippling lack of resources. It's difficult to calculate federal research allocations precisely, but there is no doubt that, relative to the number of deaths it causes each year, lung cancer receives the least federal research funding of all major cancer types. For instance, the National Lung Cancer Partnership has determined that federal research funding totaled only $1,888 per lung cancer death last year, compared to $19,419 per breast cancer death. And the gap in private funding is similarly wide.

The inspirational successes of the breast cancer movement have shown us that research saves lives and gives hope to the newly diagnosed. But research isn't free, and when it comes to lung cancer, the money and the hope just aren't there yet.

Then there are the systemic inequalities. The American Lung Association lists several factors that contribute to many of the persistent health disparities facing the black community: socioeconomic status, disproportionate environmental exposure to carcinogenic toxins, unequal access to health care, unequal quality of cancer care, and the experience of racism and social stress. These factors create a troublesome baseline of wellness for any health issue. With lung cancer, when smoking is thrown into the mix, we have a public health nightmare.

Big Tobacco has targeted the African-American community since the 1960s, telling us that it's ice-cold cool, sexy, and sophisticated to smoke cigarettes -- particularly menthol cigarettes. Their efforts have been wildly successful. According to a report issued by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 83 percent of African-Americans prefer menthol cigarettes. The overall health effects of menthol are not well documented, but some research indicates that menthols may be more addictive than other kinds of cigarettes. Studies have also found that menthol smokers are less likely to successfully quit smoking. And quitting is hard enough already.

Although smoking rates among African-Americans are lower than one would expect if extrapolating solely based on the prevalence of lung cancer among our ranks, this is hardly cause for celebration. Given the compounding risk factors that our community faces, we need to be even more vigilant about controlling our tobacco use.

Now that you know the facts, there are some ways to get involved.

  • Learn more about lung cancer, and spread the word.
  • If you smoke, there is no better time than now to quit -- and if you don't smoke, encourage friends and loves ones to start quitting today.
  • Advocate for passage of the Lung Cancer Mortality Reduction Act, a bill seeking to halve the number of lung cancer deaths in the next ten years.
  • Finally, help stop the pernicious stigma that those who suffer from lung cancer somehow deserve the disease. No one deserves a lung cancer death sentence.

By the close of 2011, it is estimated that more than 23,000 African-Americans will receive a lung cancer diagnosis. Most -- 60 percent -- will be diagnosed once the cancer has already advanced, leaving them with a scant 3 percent chance of living for five more years. For those of us in the black community working against the statistics to improve our own health -- and the health of our families and our communities -- it is time for us to work together to eliminate the threat that lung cancer poses to us all.