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A closer look at cancer in the US among Native Americans

Cancer affects Native Americans in the United States differently than it does whites and other ethnic and minority groups, according to the American Cancer Society.

Cancer statistics – tough to get numbers

in the Native American community

It is important to note that cancer data for American Indians and Alaska Natives is incomplete, and therefore does not reflect the true cancer burden in this population, particularly as it contrasts to other racial or ethnic groups, claims Rebecca Siegel, who works in Surveillance and Health Policy Research for the American Cancer Society.

Numbers may be underreported in the Native American population, due in part to limitations in the way data is collected, and may not reflect the true extent of the cancer problem. But steps are being taken to get a more accurate and complete picture.

According to Siegel, “The Centers for Disease Control continues to coordinate efforts to improve the quality of data by linking the Indian Health Service patient registration database with state cancer registries that are part of the National Program of Cancer Registries, as well as the National Cancer Institute’s registry system.”

So the statistics are somewhat sketchy, but here’s what we know:

  • Native Americans have the LOWEST survival rate of any other racial group.

  • American Indians and Alaska Natives continue to have the poorest survival from all cancers combined – than any other racial group.

  • Access to quality health care is a continuing problem for Native Americans. Many people live in rural areas and lack screening services in their community, or they may live a long distance from a treatment center and have to travel far for treatment. Consequently, they may not get a preventive cancer screening when they should, or they may go in for treatment later, when the disease has already progressed to a more advanced stage.

  • Lack of health insurance is another reason why many Native Americans are not getting the care they need. Native Americans are second only to Hispanics in lacking health insurance.

But it isn’t just Native Americans who face these barriers. Compared with 8 percent of Caucasians, 24 percent of African-Americans and 23 percent of Hispanics live below the poverty line. And 18 percent of African-Americans and 33 percent of Hispanics are uninsured, while only 12 percent of Caucasians lack health insurance.

Bottom line: when you’re poor and you don’t have insurance, you’re more likely to be treated for cancer at late stages of the disease – you’re more likely to receive sub-standard clinical care and services. You’re more likely to die from cancer.

Most common cancers affecting

Native American men and women

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In Native American men, the most commonly diagnosed cancers include prostate, lung and bronchus, colon and rectum.

In Native American women, the most common cancers are breast, colon and rectum, and lung and bronchus.

Cancer death rates vary from region to region among Native Americans

Mortality rates are higher for Native Americans living in the Northern Plains and Alaska than in the Southwest. This is due in part to the higher smoking prevalence in these areas. Smoking prevalence is much higher among Native Americans than in the general population – with 36 percent of Native American adults who smoke, compared to 21 percent

of Caucasians.

And for Native Americans everywhere, cancer is the second leading cause of death, right after heart disease.

How ACS is eliminating health care barriers

The way to overcome cancer disparities, according to the society, is by working to ensure that everyone has the same access to quality health care, including easy-to-understand information, affordable or free health insurance, and making sure support resources are available and tailored to the cancer patient’s individual needs.

The American Cancer Society is working to create, change and influence public policies to reduce cancer disparities such as insurance coverage of cancer screening and treatment. They’re doing research that focuses on understanding the causes of increased cancer among poor, rural, and underserved populations. They are working to provide culturally sensitive programs and services for all those touched by cancer.

For more information on how cancer affects different populations, visit the society Web site.

Contact Charlotte Hofer, American Cancer Society manager of media relations – South Dakota, at (605) 323-3553 or

What YOU can do in your community to fight cancer

First and foremost, lead a healthy lifestyle, and model it for your children. You can learn how to prevent cancer at the American Cancer Society Web site. You can volunteer your time to teach others about cancer – the importance of early detection. You can raise money for researching cancer rates in poor and medically underserved communities. You can talk with elected officials and advocate for improved access to care,

insurance coverage, research funding and community programs for diverse populations. And if you have a friend who has cancer, you can just be there as a good support system to him or her.

Are you a cancer survivor? More Native American voices are needed in the media The American Cancer Society is looking for Native American cancer survivors to share their stories through the media – to inspire others who might be newly diagnosed and don’t know where to turn; to help others understand what it’s like to live with cancer; to educate the community on how the American Cancer Society can help cancer patients and their families. YOU can make a difference in the fight against cancer. To find out more about becoming a media spokesperson, call (800) ACS-2345.