Tackling the racial gap in cancer deaths requires more specialized data.

The death rate from cancer in the United States is highest among young Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders compared to any other race group, according to a new study by the National Cancer Institute. 

Racial disparities among Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders have been noted in local cancer research, leading academics to ask for funding to analyze the cancer divide ingrained in race and ethnicity in a bill killed by lawmakers this session. 

But the study published last month marks the first time that Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders between the ages of 20 and 49 have been pinpointed at the national level as being most likely to die of any kind of cancer when compared to American Indians and Alaska Natives, Asians, Blacks, Latinos or whites of the same age. 

Researchers at the University of Hawaii Cancer Center hope to get to the bottom of disparities facing Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders and Filipinos. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015)

The study, which examined cancer death data between 2018 and 2020, could help drive funding toward more ethnically diverse cancer research, according to University of Hawaii Cancer Center Director Naoto Ueno.

Brenda Hernandez, a UH Cancer Center researcher, said she’s not surprised by the NCI study findings, which she said highlight the importance of disaggregating Asian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander cancer data. 

Until recently, race reporting at the federal level has lumped Americans of Asian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander ancestry in a single category. In 1997, the “Asian/Pacific Islander” category was split into “Asian” and “Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander.” But it wasn’t until 2018 that individual states caught up to reflect the new racial breakdown on death certificates. 

“We’ve never lumped those groups together at the Cancer Center because ethnicity really reflects culture, environment and to some extent genetics,” Hernandez said. “But it’s been more challenging to do that from a national perspective. It’s not because there’s not a sensitivity for doing so or there’s not an understanding of the need to do so, but it’s more of a statistical issue of being able to compare incidence rates in a very small population.”

Locally, the Hawaii Department of Health, the UH Cancer Center and the Hawaii Tumor Registry charged with cancer surveillance in the islands have long recorded Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander data separately from Asian populations. 

The UH Cancer Center and its tumor registry typically break down Asian data into specific categories for Japanese, Filipino, Chinese and other Asian people. Local researchers are still not able to collect and report cancer data for smaller groups, such as Samoans or Micronesians, however.

Last year data from the Hawaii Tumor Registry revealed that Native Hawaiian women in the islands have higher death rates from breast and lung cancers than women of Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, other Asian and white races.

In January, President Joe Biden’s administration committed to improving equity for Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders nationally. The new strategy goes beyond health disparities, targeting improvements in data collection, anti-discrimination efforts and language access.

As part of this initiative, the Bureau of Labor Statistics recently began publishing monthly unemployment data on Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders. The data has so far revealed that the community experienced unemployment at more than double the national unemployment rate in November 2020, several months into pandemic economic shutdowns.

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