A recent UNLV-led study comparing cancer deaths in U.S. and Caribbean-born black populations in Florida found some huge disparities between the groups, suggesting that analysis of cancer rates solely by race can paint an inaccurate picture of a diverse enclave.
The study, published last month in the scientific journal Cancer Control, examined 20,312 cancer deaths in black Florida residents from 2008 to 2012, taking into account a range of common cancers.
In those cases, the overall risk of cancer death was 2.1 times higher for U.S.-born black men and 1.6 times higher for U.S.-born black women than for black Caribbean-born individuals of each gender, respectively.
Furthermore, the study found that black Caribbeans had lower overall rates of several cancers as compared to the overall U.S. population, including pancreatic and lung and bronchus cancer, as well as breast cancer in women.
“The U.S.-born black population has the highest cancer mortality risk in the nation — even higher than previously documented when rates for blacks born outside the United States are calculated separately,” the study found.
Though overall cancer death rates declined among all racial and ethnic groups in the United States between 1999 and 2013, black Americans still suffer higher rates than any other group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The UNLV researchers’ results support findings from other studies showing that blacks born outside of the United States have lower overall cancer mortality rates than those born here.
Study author Dr. Paulo S. Pinheiro, an associate professor of epidemiology with UNLV’s School of Community Health Sciences, said he was surprised by the findings because of the sometimes-staggering disparities they indicate.
For example, lung cancer death rates for U.S.-born black residents in the study were nearly four times those of black Caribbean immigrants.
“We should not put everybody in the same group because they are the same race,” Pinheiro said of the lessons that can be learned from the study.
The UNLV study does have some shortcomings.
Findings are based on reported birthplace, so they don’t account for the length of time immigrants have lived in the United States or their possibly complex ethnic backgrounds.
And data from Florida might not be representative of the entire country, but the state’s data was chosen because of the area’s large proportion of black residents and residents with Caribbean ancestry.
Pinheiro said he hopes the study will spur additional research into the causes of the disparities, which aren’t clear.
“For some cancers, we have some idea of what is going on,” he said, “but for other cancers, the reason is more subtle.”
Some research indicates that factors including smoking and diet may play a role in the varying cancer rates.
Though generally people might attribute health disparities between the overall and black U.S. populations to socioeconomics or access to health care, many Caribbean-born black immigrants suffer from those same issues, Pinheiro said.
That suggests other factors are playing a role, and if those differences can be targeted, that could improve the situation of many black Americans.
“We can later intervene so that we can decrease the risk of cancer for our black populations,” he said.