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Commentary Health Care

Opinion: Cancer death disparities are real, but so is the ability to do something about them

Life Sciences
National Cancer Institute photo via unsplash.com.

By Rev. Alvin C. Hathaway

The writer is the executive director of Beloved Community Services Corporation, an organization on the frontline of social, economic and health related advancements in Baltimore. 

Cancer is a relentless, vicious disease that continues to claim too many lives, and the troubling reality is that the toll is even worse for people of color. As a pastor, I have tried to bring comfort to grieving families who have lost a loved one to cancer, in many cases, because the disease was diagnosed too late to do anything about it. It does not have to be this way.  A combination of science and government may be able to do something about this disparity very soon — and U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin is leading the way.

Research has shown that Black people have a disproportionately high mortality rate for many types of cancer. Studies show that people of color tend to have lower cancer screening rates and, thus, often have their cancers diagnosed at a later stage when treatment is far less effective. These lower screening rates can be for a number of reasons, from lack of health insurance to lack of easy access to health centers for mammograms and colonoscopies. Without such screenings, cancers tragically are often not diagnosed until it’s too late to save the patient.)Adding insult to injury, cancers without screening are more likely to be diagnosed in late stages.

It does not need to be this way. Access to Medicare insurance is associated with a significant increase in the detection of cancers with recommended screenings, as well as with a decline in mortality, particularly for women and racial minorities.

Medical science is on the verge of providing exciting new cancer detection tools. There are now technologies that can screen for dozens of types of cancer from a single draw of blood, and they are showing tremendous promise. Multi-cancer early detection tests have also caught the eye of President Biden in his Cancer Moonshot initiative. The beauty of this innovation is that any community health center or physician’s office can easily administer such a blood test. Cancer screenings can be brought within easy reach of all Maryland citizens, regardless of their zip code or their skin color.

It is now incumbent upon our elected officials like Senator Cardin to partner with cancer advocates and make easy community screening possible. Right now, even if the Food and Drug Administration deems these tests safe and effective, it doesn’t mean the Medicare program will be able to make it available for beneficiaries – and, as we know, older people are more susceptible to cancer. Without political intervention, it can be expected to take many years before Medicare could cover these blood tests.

There is legislation in Congress, co-authored by Senator Cardin, the Medicare Multi-Cancer Early Detection Screening Coverage Act, that would cut through this bureaucratic red tape and create a clear path for Medicare to cover these new cancer screening tools. It is my hope that Senator Cardin’s legislation becomes law this year. It has already garnered support from a bipartisan majority of members of the U.S. House of Representatives, more than half of the Senate, and the highest profile cancer organizations. There is no reason to delay sending this bill to the president’s desk.

We need to take this bold step to reduce cancer deaths, particularly for those who already have a greater likelihood of dying because of their race or where they live.