Taking a Closer Look at Farmworkers and Cancer

According to a 2010 poll, cancer is the disease most feared by American adults. And rightfully so, as the National Cancer Institute’s surveillance program reported that same year that over 13 million Americans were living with cancer. Farmworkers number over two million in the U.S. and are predominantly of Latino or Hispanic ethnicity. Even though cancer incidence and death rates for Latinos are lower than for non-Hispanic whites and, in fact, are declining, U.S. Latinos have higher rates of cancer caused by infections, such as cancer of the stomach, liver, uterine cervix, and gallbladder. Furthermore, while Latina women in the U.S. have lower rates of breast cancer than non-Hispanic women, they actually have a 20% greater risk of dying from the disease, making breast cancer the leading cause of cancer mortality among Latina women.

Farmworkers are not only at increased risk for developing cancers caused by infections and cancer mortality, they also experience higher exposures to cancer-causing chemicals through the pesticides they apply to crops and come into contact with during planting, weeding, pruning, and harvesting. Making the link from pesticide exposure to cancer diagnosis is difficult, as the time between exposure and diagnosis may be years; however, research is beginning to show an association. For example, a 2012 study of Canadian women who had been exposed to cancer-causing and hormone-altering chemicals while on the job found that women who worked in agriculture had a significantly higher risk of breast cancer later in life.

Farmworkers in the U.S. experience conditions both on and off the job that affect their health. Several underlying factors contribute to this, including immigration status, language, family separation, and poverty. Seventy percent of farmworkers are migrants from Mexico who speak Spanish or an indigenous language and at least 50% lack authorized immigration status. Half are under the age of 31 and most are unaccompanied by any family members (61%). Many farmworkers report that poverty and lack of opportunity in their home country was their main motivation for migrating.

These underlying factors are reinforced by policy which influences social norms and both govern the communities where farmworkers settle. Ultimately, restrictive immigration policies decrease farmworkers’ ability to speak up about dangers on the job, increase exposure to dangers, and inhibit their ability to seek medical treatment, either for pesticide exposures or to prevent infections that cause cancers.

National and state-level policies around immigration and the rights of immigrants contribute to disparities in cancer rates. Not only do they put more farmworkers in harm’s way, they create an environment in which discrimination is normalized and unnoticed, increasing feelings of fear, stress, negative coping behaviors, and affecting daily living and working conditions. They create an environment in which the odds are stacked against escaping these conditions.

When we think about the underlying factors affecting our health we begin to question what we’ve always been told – that opportunity is distributed equally. Motivation, persistence, and determination, which are prerequisites for making the journey from Latin America to the U.S., might not be enough to rise above and break through the strong and ever present external forces that hold us firmly within our socio-economic status and directly affect our quality of life and health.