Donna Summer's Death Highlights Lung Cancer Risk For Blacks

Donna Summer's Death Highlights Risk Of Lung Cancer For Blacks

It's estimated that some 88,000 men and 70,000 women die from lung cancer each year, and for African Americans like disco legend Donna Summer, who reportedly lost her battle with the disease Wednesday night, the outlook is especially grim.

African-American men are 37 percent more likely to develop lung cancer than white men, even though their overall exposure to cigarette smoke, the primary risk factor for lung cancer, is lower, according to the American Lung Association.

For women, lung cancer has consistently surpassed breast cancer as the leading cause of cancer deaths since 1987, though African-American women represent a smaller percentage of those diagnosed, when compared with whites.

Why the disparity exists is a combination of biological, environmental, political and cultural factors, according to a 2010 lung association report,"Too Many Cases, Too Many Deaths: Lung Cancer in African Americans."

Dr. Norman H. Edelman, the lung association's chief medical officer, explained to The Huffington Post how some of those factors play out.

"There are at least two components," Edelman said. "One, which is pretty clear from the data, is that lung cancer gets discovered later in a less treatable stage in African Americans," he said, citing reasons like lack of access to the same amount of health insurance.

But it's not quite as simple as that, he added. "Even among people with comparable insurance, African-American lung cancer tends to be discovered later." The reasons involved could be culturally based, he suggested, correlating with a 2010 Dana-Farber Cancer Institute study, which found that while both blacks and whites "grossly underestimated" the bleak outlook associated with a lung cancer diagnosis (only 15 percent of patients survive five years), black study participants were more likely than whites to say they were confused by the many recommendations about prevention of the disease.

In another part of the survey, only 73 percent of blacks agreed that lifestyle and behavior caused the disease, compared with 85 percent of whites.

These attitudes about lung cancer are alarming and could hinder prevention and treatment, the researchers concluded.

To clarify any misperceptions about the most effective way to prevent lung cancer, Edelman explained that exposure to high levels of radon at home and particulate pollution (a bigger problem in urban areas) do pose risks, but that smoking is the key. "Prevention is don't smoke, don't smoke, don't smoke," he said.

Yet, he noted, "For the same amount of cigarette smoking, African-Americans will tend to get more lung cancer."

Though speculative, the reasons suggested for this include genetics, as well as African-Americans' greater tendency to use cigarettes with menthol, which is said to alter smoking behavior and addiction severity, Edelman said.

And while it's best that a person should never smoke, quitting can also significantly reduce risk. "Data suggests that if you've stopped smoking 15 years or more ago, your risk has declined to the level of the general population," Edelman said.

A report earlier this year in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute estimated that some 800,000 lung cancer deaths had been prevented from 1975 to 2000 by individuals' quitting smoking or never starting.

Edelman also pointed to yearly lung cancer screening in high-risk communities as an effective measure. "The big new thing in lung cancer is screening with low-dose CAT scans," he said, citing a National Cancer Institute study, which showed a 20 percent reduction in lung cancer mortality with low-dose CAT scans (versus the traditional chest X-ray).

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