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Asian Americans and cancer

two Asian women talking on the street
Photo by Pascal Müller on Unsplash

Cancer doesn’t affect all ethnic groups the same. Certain types of cancer are more common in some groups than others. Liver and stomach cancer occur at higher rates within the Asian American community. Studies have also shown that Asian Americans have lower rates of cancer screening compared to other groups in the United States. Within the Asian American community, Korean Americans are the least likely to undergo screenings for colon, cervical and breast cancer. The following are some facts about Asian Americans and cancer:

  • Cancer is the leading cause of death for Asian Americans
  • Among men, the 3 leading causes of cancer death are lung, liver and colorectal
  • Among women, the 3 leading causes of cancer death are breast, lung and colorectal
  • Cervical cancer is five times greater in Vietnamese American women than non-Hispanic white women
  • Breast cancer rates increase almost 6-fold for Asian American women after immigrating to the U.S.
  • Liver cancer death rate is 60% higher in Asian Americans than Caucasians
  • Prostate cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer and the 5th leading cause of cancer death

Cancer screening is gradually improving among Asian Americans, but there is still room for improvement. Screening can detect cancer in the early stages, before symptoms occur and before it has spread, when there is the best hope for a cure.

Screening recommendations by cancer type:

  • Colon: Age 50 – colonoscopy
  • Breast: Age 40 – annual mammogram and clinical breast exam
  • Lung: Age 55-75 with a history of heavy smoking – consider screening
  • Cervical: Age 21-65 – Pap test every three years
  • Prostate: Age 50 – discuss screening with your doctor

Overall Asian Americans have lower cancer rates than white Americans; however, disparities still exist. Asian Americans are 8-13 times more likely to develop liver cancer, and twice as likely to die from stomach cancer.

Liver cancer

Although primary liver cancer is not common in the United States, it is much more prevalent in other countries, especially Southeast Asia. Hepatitis B is the primary risk factor for liver cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 10 foreign-born Asian Americans is living with hepatitis B. Although Asian Americans make up less than 5% of the population, they account for more than 50% of the hepatitis B cases in the United States.

Those at high risk should be tested:

  • Born in Asia or the Pacific Islands
  • Born in the U.S., but not vaccinated at birth, and have one parent born in East or Southeast Asia, except for Japan, and the Pacific Islands
  • Living in the same household with individuals with hepatitis B
  • Sexual partners of people with hepatitis B

Talk to your health care provider about getting the hepatitis B vaccine. Hepatitis B incidence has decreased by more than 50% since 1990 in the U.S. due to vaccination.

Stomach cancer

Worldwide, stomach cancer is more common in Japan and China. A diet that contains smoked foods, salted fish and pickled vegetables has shown to increase the risk of stomach cancer. Avoiding these foods and eating fresh fruits and vegetables can decrease your risk. Although screening for stomach cancer is not routinely done in the United States, Asian Americans concerned about their risk should discuss screening with their doctor.

If you have further questions about cancer, the nurses at the Cancer AnswerLine are here to help. Call 800-865-1125.

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