Harvard Perspectives on Prostate Disease

Mind the gap

African Americans are more likely to develop — and die from — prostate cancer than others. But why?

This year, the American Cancer Society estimates that nearly 1.5 million Americans will be diagnosed with some form of cancer — and that figure doesn't even include more than 1 million cases of certain skin cancers. The organization estimates that cancer will also claim 562,340 lives in 2009. Scientific evidence shows that about one-third of those deaths could have been prevented by making lifestyle changes. Smoking, being overweight or obese, not exercising, and eating a poor diet — all modifiable risk factors — have been linked to cancer (as well as heart disease, diabetes, and many other conditions).

Although several studies indicate that the risk of dying from prostate cancer increases with obesity, and that a diet high in saturated fat can up the risk of developing the disease, factors that can't be changed seem to account for most prostate cancers. These include family history, age, and race and ethnicity. For example, recent genetic studies have found that a strong familial predisposition may be responsible for about 5% to 10% of prostate cancers, which could be as many as 19,228 cases this year. Men with a first-degree relative (brother or father) with prostate cancer are more than two-and-a-half times as likely to develop the disease as a man with no affected family members.

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