Brian Rivers, PhD​ ​Photo by Julius Grimes / KreativeTouch Group Inc.

CANCER RESEARCH IS FUELING a record number of approvals for anti-cancer therapeutics. Overall cancer death rates are declining, and the number of cancer survivors has reached a record high. Despite this progress, cancer has a disproportionate impact on disadvantaged and minority groups.

​In the U.S., black men face more than double the rate of death from prostate cancer than men of other racial and ethnic groups. Hispanic children remain 24% more likely to develop leukemia than non-Hispanic children. And women of low socioeconomic status with early-stage ovarian cancer are 50% less likely to receive recommended care than women of high socioeconomic status with the same diagnosis. The factors contributing to these cancer health disparities are complex and challenging.

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) defines cancer health disparities as adverse differences in cancer measures existing among certain population groups. These measures include number of new cases, number of deaths, cancer-related health complications, survivorship and quality of life after treatment, screening rates, and stage at diagnosis. While research suggests that genetic and environmental factors may account for some cancer health disparities, inequities in awareness of and access to high-quality health care, including screenings and prevention, are also at fault.

The AACR Cancer Progress Report 2019​, published by the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), highlights the need to intensify research and policy efforts to better understand the relative contributions of factors causing U.S. cancer health disparities. (The AACR also publishes Cancer Today.) Only with new insights obtained through research— including basic research using samples from all U.S. population groups and through the participation of individuals from all these groups in clinical trials—will we develop and implement interventions to benefit all. Fortunately, government and other stakeholder-led programs and initiatives are stepping in to address this need.

For example, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently issued draft guidance for the pharmaceutical industry with recommendations to diversify clinical trial populations. The guidance followed a public stakeholder workshop and is intended to improve collection of clinical trial data that are more relevant to the real-world population of people with cancer. The FDA and the AACR continued to explore this topic at the FDA-AACR Workshop to Examine Under-representation of African Americans in Multiple Myeloma Clinical Trials, which was held in Washington, D.C., in February. The National Institutes of Health, the NCI Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities and the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities are funding strategic initiatives to improve our understanding of factors contributing to cancer health disparities.

The AACR has long recognized the need to address cancer health disparities through cancer research programs and initiatives. The AACR’s Conference on The Science of Cancer Health Disparities in Racial/Ethnic Minorities and the Medically Underserved marked its 12th year in 2019. Developed in collaboration with the AACR’s Minorities in Cancer Research Council and Constituency Group, the conference strives to bring research on cancer health disparities to the scientific and advocacy communities. A critical tool to combat cancer health disparities is community engagement. The AACR added its Scientist↔Survivor Program to the conference to support partnerships with patient advocates from underrepresented communities.

In 2018, the AACR formed a Cancer Health Disparities Task Force and hosted a think tank that included leading experts to chart the future direction of the AACR’s cancer health disparities programs. One of the products of the Task Force has been the AACR Cancer Disparities Progress Report 2020: Achieving the Bold Vision of Health Equity for Racial and Ethnic Minorities and Other Underserved Populations, which will be shared with members of Congress a​nd their staff at a future Congressional Briefing and Hill Day.

We welcome you to join the AACR in advocating for research and policies that address cancer health disparities. As a community of patient advocates, cancer survivors, researchers and physician-scientists, we have a compelling and important story to tell. For more information, contact Carrie Treadwell, the AACR’s director of Patient Advocacy and Engagement.

Brian Rivers, PhD, is the director of the Cancer Health Equity Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta and past chair of the AACR Minorities in Cancer Research Council. He was conference co-chair for the 11th AACR Conference on The Science of Cancer Health Disparities in Racial/Ethnic Minorities and the Medically Underserved.