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Colorectal cancer rates higher for Minnesota's Natives

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ONAMIA, Minn. - A two-day meeting concluded Sept. 11 to examine the unequal burden of colorectal cancer among American Indians. Tribal leaders from Minnesota's 11 tribes, health professionals, cancer survivors and community members met at Grand Casino Mille Lacs to discuss how they can work collectively to begin tackling this problem.

The summit was the result of collaborations between tribal and urban American Indian elders and health providers, and cancer experts at IHS, University of Minnesota, Mayo Clinic, Minnesota Department of Health and the American Cancer Society. It was developed in collaboration with the Prevent Cancer Foundation's Dialogue for Action program.

''This dialogue was a monumental step in helping Minnesota's tribes begin thinking about strategies to work together to combat colorectal cancer in American Indian communities,'' said Dr. David Perdue, M.S.P.H., a gastroenterologist at the University of Minnesota Cancer Center and a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma. ''These communities face unique barriers to colorectal cancer screening, and have a higher prevalence of colorectal cancer risk factors. The result is that while rates are falling in other populations, they are increasing in Native communities.''

According to the Minnesota Cancer Surveillance System, American Indian cancer incidence rates are about 60 percent higher compared to non-Indians. The death rate continues to increase because a colorectal cancer diagnosis often comes when the cancer has significantly progressed. The word ''cancer'' itself carries an unwanted power that forces many to fear even discussing it. But Minnesota's tribal nations are acknowledging this and want to do something to change these perceptions.

''It is important for tribes to identify colorectal cancer not just as a disease that affects individuals, but as one that affects entire communities,'' said Dr. Lana White King, health director for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. ''By working between tribes to ensure the wellness of our communities, we strengthen the future of our people.''

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Dialogue participants discussed how to work within tribes to break down financial and cultural barriers to screening, educate on the importance of screening, and dispel myths that colorectal cancer screening - particularly a colonoscopy - is a painful and embarrassing procedure.

Seven-year colorectal cancer survivor Vivian Lawrence of the Red Lake Tribe shared her story to inspire others to get screened. ''Colonoscopies are not nearly as bad as society makes them out to be,'' she said. ''Taking the prep fluid is by far the worse part of the procedure.''

As a result of the conference, priorities were agreed upon, including the need for tribal resolutions that make colorectal cancer screening a priority, the need to secure funding for screening exams, and the importance of community-based programs to educate the young and the old. The Minnesota Intertribal Colorectal Cancer Council, which was formed to help bring colorectal cancer to the forefront of Minnesota's tribes, will also continue to meet to further address the issue and help provide support to Minnesota tribes.

''The summit was everything we had hoped it would be,'' said DeAnna Finifrock, R.N., Comprehensive Cancer Control director for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and a member of the planning committee. ''Indian people from across the state coming together to take on Indian cancer.''

For more information, contact Perdue at (612) 675-3741 or