Dr. Otis Brawley

Tracking Cancer: The Hispanic Factor


story by : Chriss Swaney


reports that overall about 1 in 3 Hispanic men and 1 in 3 Hispanic women will be diagnosed with cancer or about 22 percent of the Latino population will be diagnosed with cancer. And the lifetime probability of dying from cancer is 1 in 5 for Hispanic men and 1 in 6 for Hispanic women.

Brawley argues that the risk factors for cancer remain relatively the same for all ethnic groups and include abstaining from tobacco use, maintaining a healthy body weight, having an active lifestyle and consuming five to nine servings of fruit and vegetables a day and limiting red meat intake to two to three servings a week.

“Fish and white meat like chicken are the safest bet for diets,’’ he cautions. “Baked chicken is wonderful.’’

However, the big difference for risk factors in Hispanic women of Mexican origin remains the ongoing battle with obesity.

“Forty-five percent of Mexican women are obese compared with Hispanic women from other parts of Latin America,’’ says Brawley.

He notes that this obesity issue though is more of a socioeconomic one and that income is directly related to those most at risk for cancer.

“I have a prejudice. Poor people are most vulnerable. We are finding that income plays a big factor in the number of times women and men seek special cancer screening and regular doctor visits,’’ says Brawley, who oversees more than 800 research grants at universities nationwide to help solve the cancer conundrum and find its Achilles heel.

There are typically many mutations in a single cancer cell. But there are a limited number of ways that the body can produce energy and support rapid growth. Cancer cells rely on these fuels in a way that healthy cells don’t. So, some researchers are now targeting the body’s metabolism – slowing or stopping tumors by disrupting one or more of the chemical reactions a cell uses to proliferate.

Brawley points to a recent study done by the American Cancer Society that finds that Hispanics have a higher risk for cancer associated with infectious agents such as the liver, stomach, cervix and gallbladder cancer. Cancers related to infectious agents are more common in economically developing countries, including parts of Latin America. The study also found that one in six new cancers in Central and South America is attributable to infectious agents compared to one in 25 in North America. In the U.S., the incidence and mortality rates of these cancers are higher among Hispanics, especially first generation immigrants for stomach and cervical cancers, than among non-Hispanic whites.

Study researchers found that liver cancer is about twice as high in Hispanics as in non-Hispanic whites and about three times higher in men than in women. However, recent analysis indicates that rates may have reached a peak.

Like most cancer sleuths, Brawley admonishes the Hispanic community to seek regular testing and screening. “In the past decade, Hispanics have been more open to screening, but we need to improve their participation,” he warned.


American Cancer Society screening guidelines include:

 • 21 years or older for cervical cancer screening.

 • Women age 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year. Women 55 and older should switch to mammograms every 2 years, or can continue yearly screening

 • 50 years of age for colon cancer screening.

 • Starting at 50, men should have a discussion with a health care provider about prostate cancer testing.


“In the 1950s, we were so fixated on smoking and its connection to lung cancer. But we now have to really start tracking this obesity issue and cancer,’’ said Brawley, who serves as a professor of hematology, oncology, medicine and epidemiology at Emory University. He is also a key leader in the Society’s work to eliminate disparities in access to quality cancer care.