Sometime during 2012, U.S. Latinos crossed a disappointing threshold; cancer surpassed heart disease to become the leading cause of death. According to an American cancer society report, one in every two Latino men and one of three Latino women will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime, with one in five Latino men and one in six Latino women dying from the disease. In total, 112,800 Latinos will be diagnosed with cancer this year, and 33,200 will die from some form of cancer.
The most common causes of cancer in Latino men are those of the prostate followed by colorectal, lung and leukemia. In women, breast, colon, rectal, lung and thyroid are the most frequently reported. However, in men, lung and colorectal, liver and prostate cancer are the most common causes of death, whereas in women, breast, lung, colon/rectal, pancreas and ovarian cancer are the most common. The painful truth is that many of these cancer deaths could be prevented. Detection and removal of early cancer lesions in the breast, colorectal, cervix, oral cavity and skin, as well as vaccinations against cancer causing viruses (human papilloma virus causes cervical cancer in women) are likely to lead to successful cancer treatment.
Are there differences between cancers in Latinos versus non Latinos?
Not all the news is bad regarding Latino cancer. Overall, the number of new cases and death rates are lower among Latinos than among non-Latinos. Yet Latinos are likely to be diagnosed with a more advanced stage of cancer than a non-Latino which directly points to a lack of early screening. Sadly, we Latinos have not completely embraced life saving cancer screening and do not seek medical checkups when symptoms occur which often means it is too late.
Why such low levels of cancer screening in Latinos?
The most common reason for poor screening pertains to healthcare barriers, such as lack of health insurance. Unfortunately, Latinos have a lower rate of access and use of all preventative services such as cancer screening. In addition, Latinos may not have benefited from educational awareness and outreach campaigns that led to improved screening practices in non Latinos. Studies show that effective communication strategies and presence of social support may improve participation in screening examinations. It is essential that we continue to promote and highlight early cancer detection as an effective way for improving cancer screening participation overall.
In addition to a yearly medical checkup which should include periodic screening for various cancers depending upon age and gender, here are some important tips for cancer screening that could save your life for some of the more commonly-occurring cancers:
- Breast cancer: Yearly mammograms are recommended starting at the age of 40. Clinical breast exams should be part of a periodic health exam every three years for women in their 20s and 30s and every year for women 40 years and older.
- Colon/ rectal cancer: Beginning at age 50, men and women should begin screening with either colonoscopy every 10 years or flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years, barium enema every five years or CT colonography every five years. You also need to have an annual stool blood and immunochemical tests with high-test sensitivity for cancer DNA.
- Prostate cancer: Healthcare providers should discuss the benefits of early prostate cancer detection including rectal exams and PSA blood tests — a specific marker for prostate cancer. African-American men and men with a strong family history of one or more first-degree relatives diagnosed with prostate cancer at an early age should have a discussion with their healthcare provider beginning at the age of 45.
- Uterine-cervical cancer: Screening should begin within three years after a woman begins having sex but no later than 20 years of age. Screening should be done every year with a regular Pap test or every two years with other types of specific tests. At age 30, women who have had three normal test results in a row may get screened every two to three years.
- Uterine-Endometrium cancer: The American Cancer Society recommends at the time of menopause all women should be informed about the risks and symptoms of endometrial cancer and encouraged to report any unexpected bleeding or spotting to their physician. Screening for endometrial cancer with endometrial biopsy beginning at age 35 should be offered to women with or at risk for hereditary colon cancer otherwise known as Lynch syndrome – a condition associated with multiple cancer types.
It is essential that everyone be aware of cancer risks so that once and for all we should not have the dubious distinction of having cancer as the top killer of Latinos in the U.S.
Dr. Joseph Sirven is a first-generation Cuban-American. He is Professor and Chairman of the Department of Neurology and was past Director of Education for Mayo Clinic Arizona. He is editor-in-chief of epilepsy.com and has served U.S. and global governmental agencies including the Institute of Medicine, NASA, FAA, NIH and CDC.