Millions fewer people are dying each year from cancer in the US than before, according to the American Cancer Society.
The organization released a new study on Tuesday showing that the cancer death rate fell by 27% nationwide between 1991 and 2006, meaning 26 million lives were spared, CNN reports.
Despite overall progress, cancer rates are worse for people living in poverty, as the study showed a large gap between the cancer rates of poor and wealthy counties across the nation. In fact, people living in poorer counties are 20% more likely to die from cancer.
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"It was surprising to see that the disparities by socioeconomic status are actually widening," said Rebecca Siegel, an author of the study. "Wealth causes differences in exposure to risk factors and also access to high-quality cancer prevention, early detection, and treatment."
Most of the deaths by cancer in the US were preventable during this period, with 71% of them involving modifiable factors such as obesity, cigarette smoking, heavy alcohol consumption, and hepatitis B and C.
The poorer communities studied in the report had higher rates of preventable risk factors, including double both the obesity rate and smoking rate than wealthier counties.
Poor areas had a 40% higher rate of male lung and liver cancer. The study also found that they had double the rate of cervical cancer, to which overweight women and women who smoke cigarettes are more susceptible.
Another disadvantage that poorer communities face is a lack of healthcare access.
"Poverty has been a relentless obstacle to receiving cancer care because of lack of, or low insurance coverage. Getting to the oncologist often takes longer and options may be more limited," said Dr. Dan Theodorescu, director of the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute at Cedars-Sinai, a nonprofit hospital in Los Angeles.
"No insurance or low-coverage insurance also reduces the incentive to visit the doctor for symptoms and even more for preventive health practices, such as smoking cessation, yearly physicals, and immunizations against cancer-causing viruses,” he added.
While the socioeconomic health gap is widening, the study found that the racial cancer mortality gap is shrinking. Even though non-Hispanic black people have the highest rate of cancer and death from cancer, the cases are starting to decline. In the mid-1990s, African Americans were 33% more likely to die from cancer than white people. In 2016, the number dropped to 14%.
Cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the US and around the world, after heart disease, according to the CDC. Similar to the US, cancer rates around the world disproportionately affect those living in poverty.
“These counties are low‐hanging fruit for locally focused cancer control efforts, including increased access to basic health care and interventions for smoking cessation, healthy living, and cancer screening programs,” wrote the authors of the study. “A broader application of existing cancer control knowledge with an emphasis on disadvantaged groups would undoubtedly accelerate progress against cancer.”