CANCER: Minorities Hit Hardest, but Slighted in Research
Cancer specialists are calling on the government to funnel more money into efforts to examine the factors that place ethnic minorities and poor people at greater risk for certain cancers, experts said yesterday. According to the 15-member panel of medical, health and research specialists convened by the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine, the National Institutes of Health "needs to expand the study of why ethnic and racial groups are disproportionatly affected by cancer and make certain that minority groups are adequately represented in research trials."
Grouping Not Helpful
The panel called for researchers to abandon traditional racial categories, noting that racial distinctions "mas[k] the influence of ethnic background and lifestyle differences that could be big factors in cancer" (Leary, New York Times, 1/21). Noting that the traditional four racial classifications - - white, black, Asian or Pacific Islander and American Indian -- are "of limited utility," the panelists asserted that the groupings are based on the "unfounded assumptions that there are fundamental biological differences among racial groups." The Institute of Medicine report noted that by lumping such distinct groups as Koreans, Japanese and Chinese all under the category of Asian, it becomes difficult to isolate particular risk factors for individual populations (Schmid, AP/Seattle Times, 1/20). For example, African-American men are more prone to develop prostate cancer, Asian Americans are more likely to develop stomach and liver cancers and Hispanic and Vietnamese women are more susceptible to cervical cancer. Further, while African American women are less likely to develop breast cancer, they are more likely than their white counterparts to die of the disease. Although genetic differences account for 5% of the higher cancer rate among minorities, they said, 95% of the differences can be attributed to diet, environment and class.
"Ethnic minorities and the medically underserved have not shared equally in the nation's progress against cancer," said Lovell Jones, professor of gynecology at the University of Texas. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that while the National Cancer Institute reportedly spent $124 million in 1997 on research for minorities, the Institute of Medicine pegs the figure at only $24 million (Reeves, 1/21). Calling the issue "one of the hottest questions in the scientific community now," Dr. Bert Petersen of Beth Israel Cancer Center said the study reveals a "strong need for research trials that are looking into these questions" (Burke, New York Post, 1/21). "We are morally bond to explore these differences," asserted committee member Susan Scrimshaw, dean of the public health school at the University of Illinois-Chicago (Fackelmann, USA Today, 1/21). The report comes in response to a request from Congress, and the experts will appear today before the Labor-HHS Subcommittee hearing on minority health to lobby for an increase in funding for cancer research, particularly among minorities.