A closeup of cancer cells in the cervix. U.S. Latinos are more likely to develop… (American Cancer Society )
Cancer has become the leading cause of death among U.S. Latinos, nosing past heart disease in 2009, researchers at the American Cancer Society reported Monday.
For most demographic groups — and for the country as a whole — heart disease is the top killer, claiming a total of 599,413 American lives in 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That same year, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 567,628 Americans died of cancer.
Among Latinos that year, the rankings were reversed: 29,935 died of cancer and 29,611 of heart disease, according to a study in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians.
The change may be due to demographics, said Rebecca Siegel, an epidemiologist at the American Cancer Society in Atlanta and lead author of the study.
The average age of Latinos in the United States is 27 and of non-Hispanic whites is 42. In the overall population, cancer is the leading cause of death in people under 85 years of age.
"This is primarily driven by the young age distribution," Siegel said.
Cancer incidence and cancer deaths among Latinos remain lower than in non-Hispanic whites, and rates of both continue to fall due to improvements in lifestyle, early detection and treatment.
At the same time, advances in the treatment of heart disease have caused death rates to fall even faster, Siegel said.
"The overall message is positive," said Dr. Paulo Pinheiro, an epidemiologist at the University of Nevada who wasn't involved with the cancer society's report.
The American Cancer Society undertakes its analysis of cancer in Latinos every three years, compiling data from the National Cancer Institute, the CDC and other government sources.
Latinos are the fastest-growing demographic group in the U.S., the organization said, numbering 50.5 million in 2010 and making up 16.3% of the population.
Siegel and her colleagues estimated that 112,800 new cases of cancer would be diagnosed in Latinos in 2012, and that 33,200 Latinos would die this year from various forms of the disease.
They also examined incidence and mortality of the various cancer subtypes. Latinos are less likely than non-Hispanic white Americans to have the most common forms of cancer in the U.S.: breast, prostate, lung and colorectal.
But they are far more likely to develop forms of cancer that result from infection, including liver cancer (caused by the hepatitis B virus), stomach cancer (associated with the H. Pylori bacterium) and cervical cancer (caused by the human papilloma virus).
Incidence and death rates for cervical cancer, for example, are 50% to 70% higher among Latinas than among non-Hispanic white women, the report noted.
Siegel said the high rates of cervical cancer were a result of lower screening rates among Latinas.
"There's an opportunity there to reduce the risk," she said, adding that the cancer society wants to promote culturally appropriate interventions for Spanish-speaking people.
The longer Latinos are in the U.S., she said, the more they acculturate — and the more their cancer risk should resemble that of non-Hispanic whites.
Pinheiro noted that U.S. residents from Mexico have lower cancer rates than people from Cuba or Puerto Rico, in part because they haven't been in the country as long.
He said he would like to see a cancer survey that compared like with like, matching Latinos who were born in the U.S. with their non-Hispanic white counterparts. However, birthplace data currently don't support such analysis.