New data from the American Cancer Society suggests that while death rates resulting from cancer in the United States have dropped by a stunning 27 percent from 1991 to 2016 – resulting in 2.6 million fewer cancer deaths over the period than if peak 1991 rates remained the same – it has primarily been the wealthy that have benefited from the decline.
The discovery throws into stark relief the yawning socioeconomic inequality that prevails in the U.S., where those with access to health insurance and medical care are able to beat cancer, while those of limited means – the unemployed, the working-poor, and those living in polluted zones – are confronted with often-untreated, late-stage cases of the deadly disease.
According to the report, narrowing racial gaps in cancer mortality have been accompanied by a broadening of the yawning socioeconomic inequality affecting U.S. society, with the residents of the poorest counties in the United States shouldering a disproportionate burden of the most preventable forms of cancer.
The authors note:
“These [poor] counties are low-hanging fruit for locally focused cancer control efforts, including increased access to basic health care and interventions for smoking cessation, healthy living, and cancer screening program … A broader application of existing cancer control knowledge with an emphasis on disadvantaged groups would undoubtedly accelerate progress against cancer.”
The general decline in cancer has primarily been credited to smoking cessation programs and technological advances in the early detection and treatment of the affliction, resulting in the decline of the four major types of cancer: breast, colorectal, lung and prostate.
However, Rebecca Siegel, report author and ACS strategic director of surveillance information services, told Axios:
“Poor people have less access to quality health care. Not only are they unable to get systematic screenings, but treatment options are oftentimes not the highest quality.”
Indeed, poor working people – who often work irregular shifts, juggle multiple jobs, or work scarce hours – are often deprived of basic social benefits like paid sick leave, let alone the luxury of missing out on precious income by taking the time off to see a doctor.
The data should come as little surprise to those who are often forced to make the choice between paying their monthly rent and seeing a doctor for a regular check-up. And if they do choose the latter, they are often given the choice between treating their eyes, their teeth, their heart – or their pocketbook.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, an estimated 41 million people in the U.S. live in poverty, which makes the country the second-highest ranked in terms of poverty rates among wealthy countries.
Poor whites, black people, Native American and Latino communities are among those who are faced with the highest levels of exposure to hazardous industrial waste and toxic effluence, and cancer is far from the only deadly health hazard that results from high concentrations of grinding poverty.
In recent years, parasitic diseases and viruses, such as E. Coli, Hookworm, and Hepatitis A that are easily prevented in developed nations, have made a sharp return in blighted regions across the United States.
During his late 2017 tour of poor communities in the U.S., United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston deplored the “great poverty and inequality” he witnessed in cities and towns in California, West Virginia, rural Alabama and Washington D.C., as well as the colonial U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.
Highlighting the government’s essential role in addressing environmental disparities, illnesses and the other toxic byproducts of a society possessed with great wealth yet riven by increasingly acute socioeconomic disparities, the special rapporteur stressed:
“The idea of human rights is that people have basic dignity and that it’s the role of the government — yes, the government! — to ensure that no one falls below the decent level … Civilized society doesn’t say for people to go and make it on your own and if you can’t, bad luck.”
Yet in the face of the ongoing crisis of public health care and rising cancer rates among the poorest regions, the U.S. government continues to shred the nearly non-existent social safety net for poor residents while devoting the lion’s share of its budget toward war and military funds, which amounted to a mind-boggling $716 billion in Fiscal Year 2019 – an amount that the administration of President Donald Trump has promised to increase by next year.