Cancer Among Native Americans and Alaska Natives

Cancer is a disease in which abnormal cells grow, divide, and spread. In most cancers, these abnormal cells form a mass called a tumor. (Not all tumors are cancer.) Cancers found in the blood or immune system do not form tumors. Most cancers are named for where they start. For example, lung cancer starts in the lung, and breast cancer starts in the breast. But cancers can spread. They can invade nearby tissues and organs. Or, they can break away and spread to other parts of the body. Symptoms and treatment depend on the cancer type and how advanced it is.

Cancers of the breast, lung, and colon are top cancers affecting American Indians and Alaska Natives. As a group, native people have lower cancer rates than non-Hispanic whites for most types of cancer. But, there are some exceptions. American Indian and Alaska Native women have higher rates of cancers of the stomach, liver, kidneys, and gallbladder, and are more likely to die of these cancers, than non-Hispanic white women. They also are more likely to have and die from cervical cancer than non-Hispanic white women. Also, cancer rates in American Indians and Alaska Natives vary widely across different parts of the country. For instance, Alaska Natives have rates of lung, colon, and breast cancer five times or more greater than those of Southwestern Indians.

A number of factors can affect a woman’s cancer risk. Some factors, such as getting older and family history, cannot be controlled. Yet, you can lower your risk of some cancers by changing some aspects of your life:

  • Don’t smoke. If you smoke, try to quit. For help along the way, check out our Quitting Smoking section.
  • Keep a healthy weight.
  • Eat healthy foods. Eat lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Make physical activity a habit. Health benefits are gained by doing the following each week:
    • 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity
    • 1 hour and 15 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity
    • A combination of moderate and vigorous aerobic activity
    • Muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days of the week
  • Limit alcohol to no more than one drink per day.

Women also can protect themselves from cancer by getting regular checkups and screenings. Screening tests can help find cancers such as breast cancer, cervical cancer, and colorectal cancer. This way, if cancer develops, it is likely to be found early. Treatment often works best when cancer is found early. A vaccine given can protect women from infections that can cause cervical cancer.

Some American Indians and Alaska Natives don’t get routine screening tests or checkups. Not having health insurance, a regular doctor, or living far from a health facility are important reasons why some people do not get screening.

We don’t always know why one person develops cancer and another does not. Yet with a healthy lifestyle and routine screening, you will feel good knowing you are doing what you can to lower your cancer risk.


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