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Expert discusses ethnic, racial disparities in incidence of obesity, cancer among women

by Sherry Fisher - May 29, 2007

Several of the risk factors for cancer, including a poor diet and obesity, are more prevalent among African-American women and Latinas than among non-Hispanic white women, according to a nationally known cancer expert.

“Obesity is clearly a risk factor for a number of cancers,” says Tim Byers, a professor of preventive medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and deputy director for cancer prevention and control at its cancer center.

Byers was the keynote speaker at a May 16 conference, “Reducing Cancer Disparities in Connecticut and Beyond,” held in the Rome Ballroom.

Byers said there is a “huge ethnic disparity in obesity in women. African Americans have the highest levels, with Hispanics following. Non-Hispanic white women are not increasing in obesity levels.”

He noted that there are several elements to the concept of risk.

African Americans have a lower risk of getting breast cancer, he said, but if they do get it, they are more likely than other groups to die of the disease.

“This appears to be the result of biology and social circumstances,” he said.

And although Latinas have a higher prevalence of many risk factors for breast cancer than their non-Hispanic white counterparts – such as obesity and low levels of physical activity – they have lower cancer incidence rates.

Among both groups, when breast cancer is diagnosed, it tends to be at a later stage in the disease.

“In African Americans and Latinas, breast cancer is at a more advanced stage at diagnosis,” Byers said. “They are larger cancers, the histological factors are worse, and they are less likely to be hormone-responsive.”

Some 120 health care providers, researchers, students, and representatives of community organizations attended the event, which was sponsored by UConn’s Center for Eliminating Health Disparities Among Latinos (CEHDL). Participants heard about cancer prevention, screening, and treatment among minority groups; cancer epidemiology among minorities; and programs for Latinos to improve cancer outcomes.

Obesity by itself doesn’t explain the differences in cancer risks for different racial and ethnic groups, Byers said, but “I think with African Americans and Hispanics, obesity will be an important prognostic factor … the bottom line is that obesity increases cancer risk, and reduces survival rates.”

African American women have a higher incidence of colorectal cancer than Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites, he said, but there is some good news overall: Death rates for this type of cancer are going down, due to changes in diet and screenings.

Byers said public health workers as well as academics need to offer minorities more information about gaining access to nutrition information.

Conference chair Rafael Perez-Escamilla, a professor of nutritional sciences who is director of the CEHDL, said ethnic minority health is one of the major challenges facing the country this century.

“There are 100 million ethnic minorities living in this country, representing one third of the U.S. population,” he said.

“Largely because of social injustice, throughout the lifecycle, poverty and correlated infectious and chronic diseases are heavily concentrated in ethnic minorities. And minorities are much less likely to have access to quality health care.

“Because minorities are crucial for the economic and social development of Connecticut and the rest of the country,” Perez-Escamilla added, “it is essential that we build and support academic-community-health care system partnerships such as CEHDL, that can help address the major existing health inequalities.”

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