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The Pink Shawl Project: Native Women Wear Their Support for Breast Cancer Screenings

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American Indian women sporting pink shawls at social events this year are likely showing their support for the American Indian Cancer Foundation’s (AICF) breast cancer awareness initiative in partnership with the Minnesota affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. The Minneapolis, Minnesota-based AICF is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that was established to address the tremendous cancer inequities faced by American Indian and Alaska Native communities.

The Pink Shawl Project aims to raise awareness about breast health issues in culturally-specific ways, educate women in Indian country about access to free mammograms, promote programs that increase access to breast health education, and give Native women an opportunity to honor cancer survivors and those who have walked on.

"It not only involves healing from these women coming together to create shawls, but we're educating along the way. Then, when women in pink shawls come out during powwows, it creates awareness," said Kris Rhodes, executive director of AICF. "It's a visual reminder to everyone in these community gatherings that there are cancer survivors among us and it gives hope to people with a new cancer diagnosis."

The Pink Shawls Project started in April 2012 through a grant from Susan G. Komen for the Cure Minnesota—the first time the Minnesota branch of the Foundation has awarded a grant to a Native-run organization in its ten years of funding provision, Rhodes told The Circle News.

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The Susan G. Komen Minnesota affiliate based its funding decision on data analysis: cancer rates are on the rise in Indian country, and cancer incidence among Native Americans in Minnesota is about two times higher than the nationwide cancer rate. Furthermore, breast cancer is the third leading cause among all cancer deaths in Indian country after lung and colon cancers.

The key to preventing cancer-related deaths is early detection. But unfortunately cancer screenings are the lowest for American Indian women compared to other populations. In urban areas across the country, 12.1 percent of American Indian women, ages 40-64, have never had a mammogram, states CDC data, compared to 8.4 percent of women of all other races. The survival rate when breast cancer is discovered and treated in the early stages is 98 percent.

"What happens a lot of times in the American Indian community is that cancer is seen as a death sentence, and unfortunately that's not too far from the truth," Rhodes told The Circle News. "In our population, too often, cancer is found at later stages where it's harder to treat, so our women are less likely to survive."

For more information about the Pink Shawl Project, contact Laura at 612-201-1157 or