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High Mortality Rates Spur Creation of National Black Family Cancer Awareness Week

Brewington says smoking cessation is one step African Americans can take to help reduce high cancer mortality rates.
Brewington says smoking cessation is one step African Americans can take to help reduce high cancer mortality rates.

The American Cancer Society says Black Americans have the highest death rate — and the shortest survival rate — for most cancers. To raise more awareness, the Food and Drug Administration created National Black Family Cancer Awareness Week, June 16-23.

KERA's Sam Baker talked with Dr. Cecelia Brewington, Vice-Chair of Clinical Operations and Chief of Community Radiology at UT Southwestern Medical Center, about why the new designation was necessary.


Why Black People Have A High Cancer Mortality Rate

If we measure cancer death rates from 1991 to 2018, there has been a drop by 31%. That steep decline was because of three factors:

  • Better medical treatments for cancer.
  • Better detection for cancer, which means we can treat it earlier and do something about it if we find it.
  • But most importantly, there was a huge lifestyle change.

At the top of the list is smoking cessation. Many people stopped smoking, and we know there's a direct relationship to decreasing lung cancer. And that's our highest cause for men and women combined for mortality due to cancer.

That's why we want to target African American families with increasing their awareness about this. There are some lifestyle things that we can do that we have within our control. We don't control everything in our lives, but this is something that we can do something about.

Another thing we can do within our power to control our rate of cancer in African Americans is to live a healthy lifestyle: exercise, good nutrition, decreasing alcohol consumption.

Also, prevention. We can do that by screening because if we screen and detect early, we have a better chance of surviving.

Why Aren’t More African Americans Getting Screened?

I can't answer that question specifically as to why, but I will say there is a long history of distrust in health care, around Black American history. When you have that type of history, there's a reluctance to seek health care and believe in health care from providers that don't look like us.

So I think providing a week of awareness gives an opportunity for African American health care providers, such as myself to step up and, and really bring this to the forefront with our family members, with other African Americans, and with our neighbors, to make sure they’re hearing from minorities in health care that this is indeed important for us to do.

The Pandemic Has Added To The Problem

We saw people move away from doing that very necessary health care visit they needed to have. For example, we saw mammography screening take a big hit. We saw colorectal cancer screening take a big hit. People were not coming in.

It's very hard to convince yourself to go in and get something done for a disease or cancer that you don't know you have and you're asymptomatic. But that's what screening is all about. Getting ahead of finding little things that might start cancer.

And that's why it's so very important. We can impact your survival rate. We might even be able to eliminate that cancer by a hundred percent. For example, in the case of colorectal cancer, even though it's most common in Black men, we can prevent that cancer most of the time, because it starts out as a little polyp. And if you come in and get that very necessary screening tests, we can detect it early enough to remove it and prevent that cancer.

About Clinical Trials And National Genetic Databases For Cancer Research

That's fear and we want to live today by fact. Many institutions have been established now to be protective of human rights. The way we conduct research today allows the person to ask plenty of questions before they begin to make sure you're satisfied.

Now, if we don't participate, it's going to be more difficult for our scientists to be able to come up with solutions as to why cancers have such a high prevalence in the African American community and what to do about it.

But one big part that can't be taken for granted is, again, doing those things that we know about: Screen at the appropriate time.


UTSW Cancer Answer Line

FDA’s Oncology Center of Excellence Launches National Black Family Cancer Awareness Week

UTSW Simmons Cancer Center

Interview highlights were lightly edited for clarity.

Got a tip? Email Sam Baker at You can follow Sam on Twitter @srbkera.

KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gifttoday. Thank you.

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.