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WMJ. 2003;102(5):36-40.

Cancer prevention in underserved African American communities: barriers and effective strategies--a review of the literature.

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  • 1Medical College of Wisconsin, USA.


African Americans suffer significantly more cancer morbidity and mortality than the white population. In order to decrease this differential, it is critical to understand the particular barriers to health and health care that underserved African Americans face. It is also important to identify the critical components of effective cancer prevention programs for this population. The barriers that impede care for underserved African Americans have been identified as: 1) inadequate access to and availability of health care services; 2) competing priorities; 3) lack of knowledge of cancer prevention and screening recommendations; 4) culturally inappropriate or insensitive cancer control materials; 5) low literacy; 6) mistrust of the health care system; and 7) fear and fatalism. Effective programs must incorporate community participation, innovative outreach, use of social networks and trusted social institutions, cultural competence, and a sustained approach. Programs that include these strategies are much more likely to be effective in reducing cancer incidence. Cancer ranks second only to cardiovascular disease as the leading cause of death in the United States. For the majority population, cancer incidence and prevalence have declined in recent years and cure rates for certain cancer diagnoses have improved. This can be attributed to progress in the development and implementation of prevention, early detection, and treatment strategies. However, despite these gains, medically underserved African American populations have not fared as well. When African American-white mortality rates are compared, African Americans are 1.3 times more likely to die of cancer than the general population. Data from the Bureau of Health Information, Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services indicate that from 1996 to 2000, cancer accounted for 33% of deaths in African Americans aged 45-64 and 34% of deaths for those aged 65-74. To decrease the disparities in cancer morbidity and mortality between the African American and white population, it is critical to understand the particular barriers to health and health care that African Americans face. This paper is a literature review of the barriers that low-income African American populations confront in obtaining needed cancer prevention and detection and the characteristics of programs that have been effective in reaching these populations.

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