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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Rutgers Professor Finds Links between Incarceration and Fatalistic Cancer Beliefs Among African American and Hispanic Men

Dr. Pamela Valera, professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health, has spent years of her career studying disparities in cancer health and survival. For most cancers, African Americans have the highest death rate and shortest survival of any racial and ethnic minority group, followed closely by Hispanics. The criminal justice system’s lack of effective tobacco control policies, combined with the fact that African Americans and Hispanics make up nearly 60 percent of the country’s prison population, may contribute to increased risk of cancer-related deaths in these populations even after release.

[Photo: Dr. Pamela Valera]

Up to a fifth of inmates in the United States have histories of tobacco use, and many in the criminal justice system report histories of other cancer-related substance use (for example, marijuana, crack cocaine, and alcohol). These risk factors can be amplified by the espousal of fatalistic beliefs — beliefs that external forces control events and outcomes, like whether an individual will develop cancer or whether that same individual will survive it. And, while correctional facilities are required to provide health care services to inmates, many lack the staffing and resources to provide adequate levels of care.

Dr. Valera along with colleagues, analyzed responses from 230 formerly incarcerated men, revealing some of their thoughts and predispositions toward cancer treatment and mortality: many of these men showed a lack of confidence due to lack of knowledge about cancer topics knowledge learning about. However, that belief can be tempered through information-seeking; improving accessibility and availability of cancer information may help challenge these beliefs.

Involving the criminal justice system in cancer health efforts and instructing individuals under community supervision about how to access health information may improve cancer health outcomes. And while there is still room for learning — comparing these results to the beliefs held in the general population could be useful — this research lays a foundation that could help change the way incarcerated and formerly incarcerated persons think about the possibility of living with, surviving, and thriving in a life after cancer.

Fatalistic Cancer Beliefs and Information Seeking in Formerly Incarcerated African-American and Hispanic Men: Implications for Cancer Health Communication and Research” was recently published in Health Communication.