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Hispanic Cancer Rates Show How It Matters Where You Come From

Almost 18 percent of Americans are Hispanic, and their experiences with cancer vary greatly.

Hispanic people much are less likely to get cancer than non-Hispanic whites, but it's also their leading cause of death.

Beneath that puzzling fact lie the complexities and contradictions of the Hispanic health experience in the United States. Since we're talking about 17 percent of the U.S. population, it has ramifications for health care and the economy.

Here's what caught our eye in Wednesday's report on cancer and Hispanics from the American Cancer Society:

  • Hispanics are less apt to get cancer than non-Hispanic whites, with 20 percent lower incidence and 30 percent lower death rates. Higher rates of drinking and smoking among non-Hispanic whites are one reason why. Fortunately, cancer rates overall in the U.S. continue to decline.
  • Gallbladder, liver and stomach cancer are more common among Hispanics, while breast cancer, lung cancer and prostate cancer are more common among whites.
  • People of Hispanic origin are more likely to be diagnosed with cancer at a later stage, when it's more likely to be fatal. That's especially true for melanoma and breast cancer. Problems with access to care are undoubtedly a factor, the researches say, but there may be other factors, too.
  • Where you're from matters. The death rates from liver cancer are twice as high in people from Mexico as they are for people from Cuba, for one. And people from Mexico are twice as likely to die from stomach cancer as are Cubans in the United States. Infection with h. pylori bacteria, which causes stomach cancer, is probably one reason. Overall, Hispanics have higher rates of cancers associated with infectious agents, like the human papillomavirus that causes cervical cancer.
  • As you acculturate, your cancer risk changes. First-generation immigrants have lower cancer rates than Hispanics born in the U.S. Again, behavior plays a role. Even though Hispanic adults are less likely to smoke than non-Hispanic whites, at 11 percent versus 18 percent, more Hispanic teens are smoking: 14 percent compared to 18.6 percent of whites. And 37.5 percent of Hispanic teens are drinking alcohol, more than the 36.3 percent of white teens. Obesity and diabetes, two big cancer risk factors, also are more common in U.S.-born Hispanics.
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