New report details how lung cancer is harder on communities of color

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in women and men, and while survival rates have increased 13% to 22.6% over the past five years, a new report shows positive developments don’t include everyone.

The American Lung Association’s 2020 “State of Lung Cancer” report explores for the first time how lung cancer affects racial and ethnic groups.

“Patients of color are not getting diagnosed early; they’re not getting the therapy they need, just like the rest of the country,” said American Lung Association volunteer medical expert Dr. Bobby Mahajan.

Mahajan is the medical director of the Interventional Pulmonology and Complex Airways Disease Program at the Inova Fairfax Medical Center.

He said nearly 25% of patients of color diagnosed with lung cancer don’t receive treatment because they either lack the money or insurance coverage, or because their conditions are so advanced by the time they get diagnosed that the benefits don’t outweigh the risk.

The report finds:

  • Black Americans with lung cancer were 16% less likely to be diagnosed early; 19% less likely to receive surgical treatment; and 7% more likely to not receive any treatment compared to white Americans.
  • Latinos with lung cancer were 13% less likely to be diagnosed early; 2% less likely to receive surgical treatment; and 39% more likely not to receive any treatment compared to white Americans.
  • Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders with lung cancer were 15% less likely to be diagnosed early and 10% more likely not to receive any treatment compared to white Americans. However unlike other groups, they were 11% more likely to receive surgical treatment compared to white Americans.
  • American Indians and Alaska Natives with lung cancer were 14% less likely to be diagnosed early; 19% less likely to receive surgical treatment; and 15% more likely to not receive any treatment compared to white Americans.

The study found that in D.C. the survival rate is below average at 20.9% and ranks 28 out of 47.

“While the overall lung cancer new case incident rate in D.C. is among the best in the nation at 47.1 per 100,000 people (ranking 8 out of 51 states), the study finds that Black Americans in the community are twice as likely to be diagnosed with lung cancer than white Americans (60.5 per 100,000 compared to 29.1 per 100,000 respectively),” a news release from the American Lung Association said.

Maryland ranks seventh in survival rates — among the top in the nation. It has an average ranking of 23.6% for lung cancer early diagnosis, but the study found that Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders in the state are 19% less likely to be diagnosed early compared to white residents.

Virginia’s survival rate is considered average at 22.7%, and the commonwealth ranks 21st among states. Its early diagnosis rate is also average at 22.4%; however, Latinos are 23% less likely to be diagnosed early than white Virginians, and Black Virginians are 13% less likely to get an early diagnosis than white Virginians.

Mahajan said lung cancer is “very curable” when detected early, but only about 5% of current or former smokers eligible for screenings get them. You can find recommendations for who should be screened here.

Lung cancer doesn’t begin to present symptoms, such as coughing or spitting blood until it’s well advanced.

“About 83% of the time when we diagnose lung cancer, it’s in Stage 3 or 4, when there’s no surgical or curative options,” Mahajan said.

Education could also raise awareness among patients and in the medical community about treatments now offered at some major medical centers.

“We need to be able to expose [patients] to different medications like immunotherapies and genetic therapies, which show an improved, disease-free survival and very minimal side effects,” Mahajan said.

WTOP’s Abigail Constantino contributed to this report.

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