Disparities Research

Racial Disparities in Lung Cancer: Research shows racial disparities in treatment and survival between Black and White lung cancer patients.

This is part 1 of a 3-part series related to the American Lung Association’s 2020 State of Lung Cancer report.

Racial Disparities in Treatment and Survival in Lung Cancer: An Introduction

Racial disparities in treatment and survival between Black and White patients with lung cancer has long been shown through a sizable body of research. Numerous recent studies confirm those persistent gaps while providing additional insights and potential solutions.

In a study published in 2019 in the Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery, researchers examined data pertaining to 22,724 patients (93.4% White and 6.6% Black) who were diagnosed with primary stage I non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) between 1992 and 2009. Patient data was obtained from the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER)-Medicare registry.1

Using multivariate regression analyses and adjusting for demographic and clinical factors, the authors found that Black patients were less likely to receive any type of treatment compared to White patients (adjusted odds ratio [aOR], 0.62; 95% CI, 0.53-0.73; P <.0001).

Black patients who were treated were less likely to receive surgery only (aOR, 0.70; 95% CI, 0.61-0.79; P <.0001) and more likely to receive radiation therapy only (aOR, 1.47; 95% CI, 1.24-1.74; <.0001) or chemotherapy only (aOR, 2.46; 95% CI, 1.74-3.49; P <.0001).

Black patients were also offered surgery less often than White patients (aOR, 0.75; 95% CI, 0.65-0.86), and those were offered surgery were more likely to refuse it compared to White patients (aOR, 1.98; 95% CI, 1.40-2.81).

In general, lung cancer “diagnosis occurs at later stages in minorities, and treatment differs, with Black [patients] receiving less surgical treatment than White [patients],” according to coauthor Emanuela Taioli MD, PhD, director of the Institute for Translational Epidemiology, director of the Center for the Study of Thoracic Diseases Outcomes, and professor of Population Health Science and Policy as well as Thoracic Surgery at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.

“Our study adds that surgery for stage I lung cancer is significantly less frequent in Black [patients] than White [patients] despite being the gold standard, and mortality is consequentially higher in Black than White [patients],” Dr Taioli said. “However, when the stage-appropriate treatment — in this case, surgery — is performed, survival is the same between groups.”

Although the reasons driving these treatment disparities have not been fully elucidated, there “may be communication barriers or other factors such as insurance copayments that play a role,” Dr Taioli stated. “There are implicit biases in the communication of treatment plans with minority-group patients that need to be addressed by clinicians and surgeons.”

Several other recent studies similarly found lower surgery rates among Black vs White patients with NSCLC, including a 2020 study of 19,624 older adult patients with stage I to stage II disease.2 As with the study by Taioli et al, data for this investigation were drawn from the SEER-Medicare registry. Based on hierarchical linear modeling, the results revealed that Black patients were less likely than White patients to undergo resection after consultation with a surgeon (aOR, 0.57; 95% CI, 0.47-0.69).2

Significant heterogeneity in rates was observed between surgeons (P <.001), and further analysis showed “variability beyond chance across surgeons in resection rates of Black vs White patients,” suggesting that physician-related factors contribute to the noted racial disparities. However, specialization in thoracic surgery was found to reduce this contribution.2

Recent Improvements in Racial Disparities in Treatment and Survival of Lung Cancer

In a study published in September 2020 in the Journal of Surgical Oncology, researchers investigated treatment trends among 174,338 patients (90.6% White and 9.4% Black) diagnosed with stage I NSCLC between 2004 and2015, based on records from the National Cancer Data Base.3 While no significant difference was observed in rates of stereotactic ablative radiotherapy (8.8% vs 9.2%; =.066), Black patients were less likely to undergo surgery compared to White patients (60.3% vs 66.9%; P <.001) and more likely to receive external beam radiation therapy (12.4% vs 10.6%; P <.001) compared to White patients.3

The results also demonstrated an increase in surgery rates for both groups over the 2004 to2015 time period (from 44.4% to 61.8% among Black patients and from 57.6% to 65.6% among White patients). In a model adjusting for definitive treatment, Black patients showed improved survival during this time period (hazard ratio, 0.97; 95% CI, 0.94-0.99).3

“Improvements in the delivery of surgery and equal utilization of definitive radiation therapy are at least partially responsible for closing the survival gap between” Black and White patients with early-stage NSCLC, the study authors concluded.3

To learn more about racial disparities in lung cancer, we interviewed one of the study authors, Olugbenga T. Okusanya, MD, FACS, assistant professor in the Division of Thoracic Surgery at Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

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