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Latinos Face Alarming Cancer Rates

With the Latino population set to triple by 2050, expert warns of cancer "train wreck" tied to issues including the lack of health insurance.
 
 
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With the Latino population set to triple by 2050, the already alarming number of cancer diagnoses in the Latino community could rise just as sharply, or even more drastically, according to a new compilation of research.

"I see this as a train wreck that's really waiting to happen," said Lydia Buki, a licensed psychologist and associate professor of community health at the University of Illinois. In a chapter in the recently published Handbook of U.S. Latino Psychology, Buki projects an impending explosion in cancer diagnoses in the Latino population and argues that not enough is being done to combat the coming crisis. "If this is already that big a problem," she said, "imagine when we have more people."

While much of Buki's own work has focused on breast and cervical cancers, her most recent work summarized research on the top four cancers that impact Latinos: breast, cervical, colorectal, and prostate. With the Latino population's projected explosion in the coming decades, Buki said, the number of cancer diagnoses -- though not necessarily the cancer incidence rate -- will also see a troubling rise among Latino men and women.

This is not to say that other communities of color are not dealing with similar threats. For instance, Black men are reported to have the nation's highest prostate cancer rate and some cancer diagnoses are on the rise among Asian women.  

But Buki said the risk is especially great for Latinas, who have a lower breast cancer survival rate than whites. Latinas are also dying of cervical cancer, which can often be treated effectively when detected early, at about twice the rate of white women.

Experts point to a complex web of social, environmental and economic factors behind the high cancer incidence and death rates.

A lack of health insurance is one of the top predictors for determining what keeps Latinas from getting cancer screenings, Buki said. Recent data shows that about two in every five Latinos lack health insurance. Under federal and state laws, undocumented immigrants have limited access to care.

Yet, a 2008 report by the Pew Hispanic Center found that just 17 percent of Latinos without a regular health care provider reported a lack of insurance coverage as the main reason. Insurance is not the only answer, said Buki: "This is an interdisciplinary issue."

One study, Buki said, found that social and cultural factors influence Mexican American women's access to breast cancer screening. Women reported feeling uncomfortable when asked to remove their clothes for a doctor's exam or a mammogram. Other Latinas would cancel medical appointments if they found out their doctor was a man. Some would withhold personal medical information during a visit because they were uncomfortable with an interpreter listening in.  

Even within their own community Latinos are sometimes hesitant to discuss cancer and other illnesses, researchers say.  

Still, although Latinos are sometimes hesitant to seek preventive care and cancer education, other barriers limit their health care options, especially for those who have limited English ability. And limited services mean fewer chances to catch cancer at an early stage, before it becomes deadly.  

"There are so many public health departments across the country that don't have staff who are bilingual, that don't go out into the communities," Buki said. "They're not getting the word out." In the midst of the recession, she added, "With all these budget cuts, we see a lot of times, the things that go first are the things for ethnic minorities."

There are few organizations geared specifically toward helping Latinas fight cancer. In a recent study, which has not yet been published, Buki surveyed 40 groups that provide counseling to Latinas about dealing with breast cancer. She found that 80 percent said they had trouble keeping up with demand for services, and about as many groups reported that the community's needs had increased over the past several years.

 
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