Why Is Colon Cancer Deadlier in Blacks?

Genetics may play a role in our mortality rates. 

Posted: 06/25/2014 01:04 PM EDT

While colon cancer deaths are going down among African-Americans, we still are more likely to die from the disease. Overall, African-Americans are twice as likely to die from the disease, with Black men dying up to five years earlier than white men.

What’s up with that?

While access to quality health care, poverty and lack of health literacy all play a role, a new study suggests that this racial health disparity may also exist because of our genetics.

Researchers from University of Michigan analyzed 503 patients with colon cancer — 45 percent were Black and 55 percent white — and found that Blacks were 50 percent less likely to develop a type of colon cancer that comes with a better chance of survival.

Only 7 percent of Blacks had a type of cancer with a genetic marker called microsatellite instability, or MSI. Even though MSI can be resistant to cancer treatment, those who have this form still have a better chance of surviving the disease. Fourteen percent of whites had MSI.

A whopping 93 percent of Blacks with colon cancer do not have this marker and don’t get to reap the survival benefits.

However, researchers also found another explanation for our depressing mortality rates: The location of where the colon cancer presents itself in our bodies.

We are more likely to have colon cancer on the right side of our bodies than our left. Often doctors miss diagnosing colon cancer on the right side compared to left side. Unfortunately, by the time the cancer is found, it’s progressed in patients, which can lower one’s survival rate.

“Right-sided colon cancer may be the ‘black ice’ of the colon, unseen but potentially deadly. Strategies to better recognize and detect right-sided cancer may need to be pursued in a broader fashion,” the study’s main author Dr. John Carethers said.

While there’s no magic pill to take to make sure we don’t get colon cancer, there are things that we can do to help prevent it. Getting screened regularly for the disease when you turn 50, eating right, working out and limiting the amount of liquor you drink can all help.

Learn more about colon cancer here.

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