Cancer deaths are dropping, but disparities persist in women, minority groups

Generally, cancer rates aren’t dropping as quickly in women. And Black women with breast cancer are far more likely to die than white women.

Cancer death rates continue to drop, but a new analysis by the American Cancer Society reveals persistent disparities among women and minority groups.

For the first time in 20 years, the incidence of prostate cancer is rising, the American Cancer Society reported last week. The rate of prostate cancer rose annually between 2014 and 2019, generating about 99,000 new cases. The data comes after screening guidelines changed several years ago.

In another disturbing finding, there are disparities in the cancer rates among women and men, the American Cancer Society says. The findings were published in the American Cancer Society’s journal CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians.

Overall, cancer death rates fell 33% from a peak in 1991 to 2020, the most recent year data is available. An estimated 3.8 million deaths from cancer have been prevented, and much of that is attributed to reduction in smoking and improved treatments, the cancer society said.

Read more: Black, Latinx patients had greater delays in cancer care in pandemic

Gender gap

In general, cancer incidence rates for women didn’t improve as much as they did for men. Lung cancer decreased about half as fast in women as in men, according to the cancer society. While lung cancer incidence in men has dropped 2.6% annually since 2006-07, the decline in women has been about 1.1% annually.

Women also saw higher rates of liver cancer and melanoma, while incidence rates in those cancers dropped in men younger than 50 and held steady in older men.

Women also had higher rates of breast cancer and endometrial cancer, the cancer society said.

Female breast cancer rates have been rising slowly but steadily since the mid-2000s. Healthcare officials fear breast cancer incidence and mortality could rise in the coming years because many women postponed mammograms during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cervical cancer rates are declining among young women. In women aged 20-24, cervical cancer rates dropped by 65% from 2012 through 2019, spurred by the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.

Lung cancer mortality rates have dropped sharply for both men and women. The lung cancer death rate among men dropped by 58% from 1990 to 2020, while the mortality rate for women fell by 36% from 2002 to 2020.

Read more: Employers worry about cancer costs, care delays during COVID-19 pandemic

Racial disparities

The data also showed troubling disparities by racial groups. Black men have far higher rates of prostate cancer: 70% higher than white men and twice as high as Hispanic males, according to the cancer society.

Black women with breast cancer have a mortality rate that is 40% higher than white women, even though the incidence of breast cancer in Black women is 4% lower. The difference in mortality rates has held steady for a decade.

The American Indian and Alaska Native population had the highest cancer mortality rate among men and women, while Black Americans were close behind.

Some of the reason ties to income inequality and reduced access to healthcare, but the disparities go beyond access issues, the cancer society found.

Among individuals with a median annual household income of more than $75,000, the five-year cancer survival rate among Black individuals (67%) remains below white Americans (72%).

Black children are also 24% more likely to be diagnosed with more advanced cancers than white Americans, the study found.