American Cancer Society report shows disparity in cancer rates: Who's being left behind?

A drawing by a 7-year-old autistic boy, Chicago, April 23, 2013.

(CBS/AP) The gap is widening. A new report from the American Cancer Society shows that college graduates are less likely to die of cancer than people who only went to high school - and the gap is even wider now than in recent years.

"We are making a great deal of progress against cancer," the society's Dr. Elizabeth Ward told CBS News. "That is reflected in the declining death rates overall." But, she said, there are persistent disparities in cancer death rates based on education level, as well as on race and ethnicity.

Among men, the least educated died of cancer at rates more than 2 1/2 times that of men with college degrees, the report shows. As recently as the early 1990s, they died at two times the rate of most-educated men.

For women, the numbers suggest a widening gap also. The data, from 2007, compared people between the ages of 25 and 64.

For all types of cancer among men, there were about 56 deaths per 100,000 for those with at least 16 years of education compared to 148 deaths per 100,000 for those with up to 12 years of school.

For women, the rate was 59 per 100,000 for the most educated, and 119 per 100,000 for the least educated.

The society estimates there will be nearly 1.6 million new cancer cases in the U.S. this year, and 571,950 deaths. Overall cancer death rates have been dropping since the early 1990s, but the decline has been greater for some groups more than others, according to the society.

Experts believe that the differences have to do with education, how much people earn and where they live, among other factors. Researchers like to use education as a measuring stick because death certificates include that information.

People with a high school education or less died at a rate up to five times higher than those with at least four years of college education, the report said.

More than a third of premature cancer deaths could have been avoided if everyone had a college degree, cancer society officials estimated.

Studies have suggested that less educated people are more likely to do risky things with their health. They are more likely to smoke, drink and overeat, leading to obesity. All those things raise the risk for various cancers.

As for survival after diagnosis, the least-educated are often poor people without good health insurance. People with no health insurance are more likely to be diagnosed when their cancer is advanced stage, and they are also less likely to receive standard treatment, studies have shown.

Click here to see the full American Cancer Society report.