Cancer in Our Communities

American Indians/Alaska Natives and Cancer

The American Indian and Alaska Native community includes a great diversity of peoples, cultures, languages and beliefs spanning more than 560 federally recognized tribes. Because of these differences, American Indians and Alaska Natives in one geographic region of the country tend to experience cancer differently than people living in another part of the country, according to studies compiled by the Intercultural Cancer Council.

For instance, rates of cancers of the lung, prostate, cervix, colon, kidney and stomach are higher among Alaska Natives than other American Indian groups, while a greater share of lung, prostate and cervical cancers occurs in Northern Plains American Indians, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Still, certain types of the disease—namely, liver, stomach and kidney cancers—strike American Indians and Alaska Natives at higher rates across the board.

Nationwide, American Indians and Alaska Natives generally have lower reported rates of cancer than all other racial groups, but those rates have been increasing in recent years, according to U.S. government data. In addition, these numbers may be underreported because of past flaws in collecting this information. Sadly, of all racial and ethnic groups in the United States, American Indians and Alaska Natives have the poorest survival rates for all types of cancer combined, according to past research studies.

At Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, we work with diverse communities to improve their understanding of unique health issues and to promote healthy habits that can prevent cancer and detect it early, when treatments are most successful.

American Indians/Alaska Natives and colorectal cancer  

American Indians and Alaska Natives older than age 50 were less likely than non-Hispanic whites to have received a colon cancer screening test—such as a fecal occult blood test, colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy—within the past two years, according to 2005 U.S. government data. Alaska Natives who live in rural areas have particularly high rates of colorectal cancer, typically because of lack of resources to perform routine tests that detect early warning signs of the disease, according to the Indian Health Service.

Fortunately, colorectal cancer is highly treatable if caught early enough. If you're older than 50 or at risk for colorectal cancer, you should ask your doctor about getting screened—it could save your life. Learn more about your personal risk for colorectal cancer and how to get recommended screenings at End Colon Cancer Now.

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American Indians/Alaska Natives and cervical cancer  

American Indians and Alaska Natives as a group were about three times more likely to die of cervical cancer than members of all other races in the United States combined, according to 2006 data from the U.S. Indian Health Service.

The good news is, cervical cancer is can be treated if abnormal cells are found early enough. Many studies have shown that regular screening with the Papincolaou (Pap) test is linked with dramatic reductions in cervical-cancer deaths.

The American Cancer Society recommends yearly Pap screening for women aged 21 to 30, and screening every two to three years for women over age 30 who have had three normal tests in a row. About 90 percent of women whose cervical cancer was detected by a Pap test will survive. Learn more about cervical cancer screening and symptoms at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

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American Indians/Alaska Natives and liver cancer  

American Indian/Alaska Native men were almost twice as likely to have liver and related cancers as non-Hispanic White men during the time period 2001 to 2005, the latest data available. American Indian/Alaska Native women have been found to be more than twice as likely to have and die from liver cancer, as compared to non-Hispanic White women. The main cause of liver cancer around the world is infection with the hepatitis B or hepatitis C virus. Other risk factors include heavy alcohol use, obesity and diabetes—conditions that tend to be more common among American Indians and Alaska Natives, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Scientists don't know exactly how to prevent liver cancer, but you can reduce your chances of getting the disease by not smoking, keeping a healthy weight, eating fruits, vegetables and whole grains, exercising regularly, and limiting your alcohol consumption. Learn more about lung cancer screening and symptoms at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

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American Indians/Alaska Natives and breast cancer  

In American women, breast cancer is the most common type of cancer and second leading cause of cancer death. American Indian and Alaska Native women had the lowest reported rates of breast cancer among all U.S. ethnic groups between 2002 and 2006, the latest data available, according to the National Cancer Institute. Their rates of death from the disease, however, were higher than Hispanics and Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders during that same period.

What's your personal risk for breast cancer? Use this tool provided by our patient-care partner, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, to find out more.

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American Indians/Alaska Natives and prostate cancer  

Prostate cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among men of all races in the United States. American Indian and Alaska Native women had the lowest reported rates of prostate cancer among all U.S. ethnic groups between 2002 and 2006, the latest data available, according to the National Cancer Institute. Their rates of death from the disease, however, were higher than Hispanics and Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders during that same period. These differences likely exist because American Indian men were the most likely to have received no cancer treatment at all, according to National Cancer Institute findings.

Learn more about prostate cancer prevention, symptoms and treatment through the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

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Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is a world leader in research to prevent, detect and treat cancer and other life-threatening diseases.