Ethnicity and Cancer Biology

One of the biggest take-away messages I get from cancer research reports in general and breast cancer research reports in particular is that the term “breast cancer” tells us something, while leaving a whole lot out.

There is growing awareness and scientific evidence that breast cancer biology, response to treatment, genetic factors, and prognosis vary sometimes widely across demographic groups and individuals. The leading theory as to why women from some ethnic groups are diagnosed later and have worse outcomes has been that women from different ethnic groups vary in their access to health care. While it remains true that timely access to health care is an important factor explaining some of the differences in stage at diagnosis and treatment outcomes, it’s not the full story.

Researchers at the University of Toronto conducted a study in which they controlled for access to care.  They found that racially-based biological differences explain much of the disparity in outcomes with invasive breast cancers.  For example, while only 40 percent of South Asian study participants received an early diagnosis (compared to 56 percent of Japanese women and 51 percent of white women), South Asian women ultimately had the lowest 7-year risk of death. Black women were twice as likely as white women to die from small tumors. You can read a synopsis of the study here

Studies like this are important steps forward in helping us to recognize that we need more than “a” cure for breast cancer.  We need research and a giant toolbag of “cures.”


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