The study was presented at the 2021 San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium on Dec. 10 (Abstract P5-14-10).
Examining the records of more than 4,300 patients with breast cancer who were treated between 2014 and 2020 in North Carolina, researchers identified 34 who were either incarcerated at the time of diagnosis or who were diagnosed before they were imprisoned.
They found that neoadjuvant therapy was not given to incarcerated breast cancer patients as compared to 8% of women who were never incarcerated and 20% of women incarcerated later. Incarcerated patients treated with surgery upfront had to wait on average more than 3 weeks longer than other patients for their procedure. Their findings were followed by a recently published study in JAMA Network Open indicating that young people with a history of incarceration were significantly more likely to experience early mortality and that mortality was higher among Black prisoners.
“These findings are concerning for missed treatment opportunities within the carceral system,” wrote researchers who were led by Oluwadamilola “Lola” Fayanju, MD, MPHS, FACS, chief of breast surgery for the University of Pennsylvania Health System, Philadelphia.
Dr. Fayanju told this news organization that she was “not surprised by the finding that there was no neoadjuvant chemotherapy given to patients at all. Even in the practice of care outside of the carceral system it is striking how much variation there is in regards to treatment sequence if it is not approached in an evidence-based way. Many of the social ills that contribute to incarceration also contribute to this variation in care, and it’s not surprising that in women who are experiencing incarceration, there is geometric escalation of disparities with regards to their opportunities for treatment.”
Erica L. Mayer, MD, MPH, a medical oncologist and clinical investigator in the Breast Oncology Center at the Dana-Faber Cancer Institute, Boston, said “this is really interesting and important work showing some worrisome trends. On the one hand, this is a very small experience and such a small sample size is always vulnerable to bias or skew from factors that become more important. However, this is not the first observation that there are disparities of care in incarcerated populations,”said Dr. Mayer, who was not involved in the study. “This is a topic that has been studied in diseases outside of oncology, such as heart disease and diabetes. There is a theme that patients who are incarcerated have a disparity and inequity of care compared to those who are not.”
The current findings “fit in with general themes,” she said. As rates of cancer are expected to grow in the coming years, “understanding how to provide the best possible care in those settings is very important. This is early data but it’s an important signal and is suggesting to us that a greater understanding of health care access for incarcerated individuals is a very important area of study, and hopefully an area for which one could provide interventions that might help to reduce these disparities.”
Dr. Fayanju and associates. set out to determine the disease and treatment characteristics of individuals with breast cancer and a history of incarceration. They focused on women who had a breast cancer diagnosis at the University of North Carolina Hospitals between April 2014 and December 2020. They gathered data on patient demographics, incarceration status, disease characteristics, treatment types, and dates of receipt of treatment, but there were few data available. “It is really striking how little data there is available. This is a very small study and is the best we could glean from a large state-wide dataset,” she said.
Of 4,332 breast cancer cases, 34 (0.8%) were diagnosed while incarcerated (70.6%) or before incarceration (29.4%). Those who were diagnosed during incarceration were significantly more likely to be single (P < .001), use illicit drugs at the time of diagnosis (P = .01), and have a family history of breast cancer (P = .03) as compared with patients who were never incarcerated and those who were diagnosed before incarceration.
The results also showed that patients diagnosed with breast cancer during incarceration were significantly less likely to receive neoadjuvant therapy at 0% versus 8.2% for those who were never incarcerated, and 20% for those who were diagnosed before incarceration (P = .01 for trend).
“Further research is needed to understand the full scope of cancer inequities and identify factors that contribute to them among patients who experience incarceration,” Dr. Fayanju said.
No funding or relevant financial relationships were declared for this featured study.