Cancer’s Effect on the Native American

Photo courtesy of the Seneca Nation of Indians Official Newsletter.

Publisehed December 15, 2018

Anyone who has had cancer affect either themselves or a loved one, knows how much of a toll it can take on a family unit. This impact is compounded when you entire community seems to be disproportionately affected as well. Cancer is certainly an illness that affects  many different types of people, but Native Americans are historically  disproportionately affected by this group of diseases. Many factors contribute to this group’s many diagnoses, from genetics to outside forces like hazardous material dumping. Despite these terrible circumstances, Native Americans are working to educate their communities about the dangers of cancer and the importance of self-care and proper screenings.

The Facts

According to the National American Indian Cancer Foundation, cancer in Native Americans is the number one cause of death in women and the number two cause of death for men. Native American women are most commonly diagnosed with breast, lung and colorectal cancers respectively, and men of this population are most commonly diagnosed with prostate, lung, and colorectal cancers.

Native Americans have the lowest survival rates for nearly all types of cancer of any subpopulation. This is mainly due to delayed detection, resulting in diagnosis and treatment in later stages of the illness, which reduces a patient’s life expectancy. Also, life choices and genetic family history of cancer play a role.

Lack of Resources

While lifestyle health issues like smoking, diet, and even genes can lead to a person’s cancer diagnosis, there are other contributing factors that can’t be as easily mitigated. Native Americans who live on reservations often live in rural areas without access to oncology services. The primary health care on reservations is provided by either a tribally operated program or the Indian Health Service. These resources are usually underfunded, which means that the services tend to be subpar, leaving the Native American people with limited availability of preventative programs, cancer screenings, and specialist care. Also with high rates of poverty in the community, many Native Americans are unable to get access to health care due to low rates of health insurance. To even access the proper treatment, some patients are forced to drive hours from reservations to get life-saving care.

Furthermore, the level of information and resources that can help Native Americans learn more about cancer prevention or cancer treatments have been notoriously low in the past. However, there have been major efforts to fix this. The 2017 Spirits of EAGLES National Conference, co-sponsored by the Roswell Park and the Mayo Clinic, adopted the theme, “Changing Patterns of Cancer in Native Communities: Strength Through Tradition and Science” to help raise awareness about cancer’s affect in the community. The program also focused on on topics like health care as they talked about traditional medicine, precision medicine, as well as the repealing of the Affordable Care Act.

Racial Profiling

According an NPR poll, many American Indians reported feeling prejudice at healthcare centers, even in areas where they are the ethnic majority, more so than in areas where they are considered a minority. NPR also reported that in places where Native American people are considered the minority, they are widely misidentified as such, which can be another form of discrimination.

Misidentification of Native Americans proper race after death is an issue as well. The CDC reported that helping to properly identify American Indians at these health care facilities will help improve the qualities of records and statistics that can help the Native American people beat the cancer that inhabits their communities. Studies show that 30 percent of people who self-identify as Native American are then classified as another race at time of death. This is skewing data that could help give an insight into or prevent cancer in this community.

Native American people are aware of the prejudice that lives inside these health care facilities and they are hesitant to receive the help they might need from these facilities. However, NPR reported, there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel and there is hope that the action like the Affordable Care Act could help more patients become eligible for Medicaid in the future, thus helping them receive the proper care they need.

Hazardous Material Dumping

For those living on reservations, coming into contact with carcinogenic materials from fly-tipping, the illegal dumping of waste, is a common occurrence. Many construction companies have dumped waste on Native American lands, forcing people to unknowingly live among asbestos and chemical-filled waste and breathe in harmful materials, thus causing cancer at a later date. Many legal actions have been taken for those companies involved in fly-tipping, but that doesn’t necessarily sure the affected people.

On average, many Native Americans work or have worked in the past at blue collar jobs, which includes occupational careers where they have been more likely to run into the human carcinogen, asbestos. By coming into contact with asbestos many of them are exposed to a myriad of potential health threats.

Asbestos is something that can unfortunately play a large role in Native Americans developing cancer. As mentioned earlier, lung cancer is the second leading cancer in both Native American men and women, and asbestos plays a role in that. Asbestos refers to a group of tiny, naturally occurring fibers that were used commonly in construction, due to fire and heat resistant properties. However, it was discovered that when the tiny invisible fibers are inhaled, they stick to the lungs and organs and become cancerous over time. After a 10-50 year latency period, asbestos causes lung cancers, such as mesothelioma.

So many Native American people have suffered from cancer due to uncontrollable circumstances and lack of resources for so long, and it’s time that changes. Both Native American tribes and cancer researchers are working to provide more research, statistics, and overall information on the Native American community and their relationship with cancer. Unfortunately, due to the misrepresentation and incorrect racial reporting at death, much of the information on Native Americans and Alaskan Natives and cancer is absent or misleading. By helping gather more accurate data, they can bring awareness to cancer treatment and prevention and many lives will be spared from terrible diseases.

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