Examining racial disparities in cancer and mortality rates

2 min read

African Americans face higher cancer rates than whites for many types of cancer, but the reasons why are largely unknown. Epidemiologist Lisa Signorello hopes to help explain the disparities in her role as co-principal investigator on a long-term study of nearly 86,000 people living in the southeastern United States—two-thirds of whom are African American.

Signorello—associate professor in the department of medicine’s epidemiology division at Vanderbilt University and the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, senior epidemiologist at the International Epidemiology Institute (IEI), and a 1998 HSPH graduate—spoke to a Harvard School of Public Health audience about the 10-year-old Southern Community Cohort Study (SCCS) on February 23, 2012.

Signorello and her colleagues, from Vanderbilt, Meharry Medical College, and IEI, have used the extensive data collected from the study participants to conduct numerous sub-studies on several factors that may play a role in racial disparities in both cancer and mortality risk, including Vitamin D levels, menthol cigarette smoking, and proteins called adipokines. Signorello’s co-principal investigator is cancer epidemiologist William Blot, professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and IEI chief executive officer.

Life circumstances may contribute to the high cancer and cancer-related mortality rates faced by African Americans, Signorello said, including poor living conditions, social stressors, lack of access to health care, exposure to carcinogens, or poor health habits. Genetic or epigenetic factors may also be involved.