COVID-19 reminded us about the gross health care inequalities which have exacted a terrible toll for so many families, particularly those of lower income and from communities of color. While we are beginning to turn the tide on COVID-19, we must not lose sight of the lessons learned on the needed changes in our health system to ensure that all communities reap the benefits of the incredible advances we've made in science.
Cancer also is a disease that has brought so much loss and suffering to people all across the world, and when you look at the statistics, a familiar picture of disparity emerges. On average, Hispanic-Americans have lower cancer incidence rates than our Caucasian counterparts, and yet the mortality rates for those in our community who are afflicted with the disease are disproportionately higher.
According to the National Foundation for Cancer Research, those of Hispanic heritage who have liver cancer are twice as likely to die as non-Hispanic whites, and Hispanic-American women with stomach cancer have a mortality rate 2.4 times higher than white women.
In short: we don't get cancer as frequently, but if we do, we're more likely to die.
And it's worth noting that, Oregon has the 16th worst Hispanic cancer mortality rate in the country. However, this loss is preventable with better screening and early detection. If you can detect cancer at an early stage, it is highly treatable. If you don't, and the cancer has a chance to metastasize, the odds of survival are much worse. The National Behavioral Health Network has identified underutilization of cancer screenings as a contributing reason for the high mortality rate we continue to experience.
Medical science may soon be able to provide some help in addressing the challenge of identifying cancer early. Right now, new cancer detection technologies are being tested in large clinical trials throughout the country. These simple blood tests can detect dozens of cancers in the body. They would represent an unprecedented leap forward.
Today, we have screening technologies available for only five types of cancer: breast, cervical, colorectal, lung and prostate. Liver and stomach cancer, which disproportionately impact minority populations, do not have available early detection screenings.
Multi-cancer early detection blood tests would address two significant problems. First, these blood tests would increase accessibility and could be administered at a doctor's office or community clinic. Second, these technologies can detect cancers for which there is no early detection screening.
When the Food and Drug Administration approves these revolutionary cancer detection tests, it's important that we can access them as soon as possible. Legislation is pending in Congress that would create a pathway for Medicare to cover these technologies and provide these expanded cancer screenings for our abuelos and abuelas, those in the age group most susceptible to cancer. Our lawmakers need to move rapidly to pass this bill.
Dedicating a month to cancer awareness helps reduce cancer's toll by educating us about the resources available to prevent the disease – like cancer screenings. Hopefully, someday soon, multi-cancer early detection, a breakthrough that can help beat the disease that kills too many of our people, will catch more cancers early, and help save lives.
Gale Castillo is chair of the Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber in Portland.
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