Discover Data: Cancer's Reversal of Fortunes

Sunday, September 01, 2002
by Hannah Hoag

In 1950, lower-class Americans were less likely to die from cancer than those living in tony neighborhoods. Now the opposite is true, says Gopal Singh, a health statistician at the National Cancer Institute. He examined 18 million cancer-related death certificates from the past 50 years and divided the victims into five socioeconomic groups. Cancer mortality rates in the lower economic groups rose rapidly through the 1980s, even as they leveled off among the more privileged. Singh blames the flip on smoking. Before World War II, cigarettes were fashionable among the social elite. By the 1970s men without a high school diploma were nearly twice as likely to smoke as their college-educated peers. The gap has since grown to a factor of three. "Unless we can reduce the differences in smoking patterns, screening, and survival, we'll see a widening trend in mortality between social classes," Singh says.

Graphic by Matt Zang

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