March is National Kidney Month and National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. On the surface, these two designations appear to have little in common. In fact, however, like many conditions, kidney disease and colorectal cancer disproportionately affect members of minority populations.

With both conditions, early detection is key. For colorectal cancer, early detection saves lives. Yet many who could benefit from early detection are less likely to have access to screening services, in part because of socioeconomic and cultural barriers to care. For example:

  • African Americans, American Indians, and Alaska Natives living in rural or isolated areas often lack easy access to care and to transportation.
  • Among Hispanic Americans, cultural taboos about discussing disease and death play a role in lower screening rates.
  • Rates of death due to colorectal cancer are higher in states with the lowest education levels.

Kidney disease-related disparities

Diabetes and high blood pressure are the leading causes of chronic kidney disease in the U.S. African Americans, American Indians and Alaska Natives, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans all are more likely than white Americans to have these conditions. In addition:

  • African Americans are three times more likely to suffer from kidney failure than white Americans. In addition to higher rates of diabetes and high blood pressure, African Americans are at higher risk for heart disease, another cause of kidney disease.
  • Asian Americans are the most likely to have diabetes and not be diagnosed with the condition. They also tend to develop diabetes at a much lower body weight than white Americans, so even a small weight gain can place Asian Americans at risk for diabetes and its complications.
  • American Indians and Alaska Natives are 50 percent more likely to have kidney failure than white Americans.
  • About 1 in 4 Hispanic Americans over age 45 has diabetes, and diabetes causes kidney failure more often in Hispanic Americans than in white Americans.

Colorectal cancer-related disparities

Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in the U.S. and the second leading cause of death from cancers that affect men and women. Colorectal cancer affects people in all racial and ethnic groups, but disparities exist. For example:

  • African Americans with colorectal cancer continue to have the shortest survival times and the highest rates of death.
  • Fewer than half of American Indians and Alaska Natives are up to date with their colorectal cancer screenings. That includes adults who have not had any screenings and those who, after an initial screening at age 50, have missed subsequent recommended screenings.
  • Fully 52 percent of Asian Americans between 50 and 75, and 47 percent of Hispanic Americans in that age group, have not been screened for colorectal cancer.

Disparities in screening rates are especially important because screenings are one of the most effective ways to prevent colon cancer. Screenings can find abnormal, precancerous growths in the colon, and they can be removed before they turn into cancer.

What you can do

Get screened. Talk to your doctor about your risks for diabetes, kidney disease, colorectal cancer, and other conditions—and ask about related screenings. Be sure to discuss whether you’re at higher risk because of your age, sex, race, ethnicity, family history, or lifestyle. Then, follow through and have the screenings at the recommended times. For most diseases, the sooner they’re detected, the more likely that treatment will be effective.

Ask your doctor about medications and other treatments. If your doctor prescribes medication, don’t hesitate to ask about the dose they’re prescribing, how the medication works, and the potential benefits, risks, and side effects. If you’re interested in participating in a clinical trial, ask about that, too.

Follow recommendations for diet, exercise, and other healthy choices. Many conditions can be prevented or improved by making smarter health decisions. If you smoke, quit. Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats, and avoid foods that are high in fat or sugar. Stay active and maintain a healthy body weight. Do your best to manage stress. If you notice changes in your health, see your primary care provider so you can address problems early.