Celebrating Native American Heritage Month
November is National Native American Heritage Month — a time to celebrate and honor the rich and diverse cultures, traditions, contributions, and histories of American Indian and Alaska Native people. It is equally important to discuss ongoing disparities that Native American people face in accessing needed cancer care. Keep reading to learn about the Cancer Support Community’s commitment to breaking down barriers to cancer care and our effort to bring cancer treatment facilities to tribal lands in the United States.
Disparities in Cancer Care
It is vital that all cancer patients and survivors have the opportunity to achieve the best health outcomes no matter their race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or location. However, health disparities affecting American Indian and Alaska Native people persist. Health disparities occur when certain populations have a disproportionate burden of disease (such as cancer or COVID-19) due to social, environmental, and economic factors.
American Indian and Alaska Native people continue to experience significant cancer disparities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has studied U.S. cancer statistics and found that that:
- American Indian and Alaska Native people are more likely to get liver, stomach, kidney, lung, colorectal, and female breast cancers than white people.
- Native American men have higher rates of myeloma and liver, stomach, kidney, colorectal, and lung cancer compared to white men.
- Native American women have higher rates of liver, stomach, kidney, colorectal, and cervical cancer compared to white women (CDC, 2021).
Disparities also exist in cancer screening. Cancer screening tests are critical because they can prevent some cancers or find them at earlier stages before the cancer has progressed and is easier to treat. The CDC has found that breast cancer (mammogram), cervical cancer (Pap test), and colorectal cancer (colonoscopy) screening rates of American Indian and Alaska Native women are lower than the screening rates of white women (HHS, 2021).
Additionally, nearly 22% of American Indian and Alaska Natives do not have health insurance, compared to less than 8% of white people (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2019). For patients who live on tribal lands, accessibility to cancer care can also be an issue. While the Indian Health Service provides primary medical care, specialty care ― including cancer care — is beyond its mission, and transportation costs of seeking off-reservation cancer care can be a barrier to treatment.
Breaking Down Barriers to Cancer Care
It is critical to reduce cancer disparities in American Indian and Alaska Native populations. To help address these disparities, we worked with Tuba City Regional Health Care Corporation on the Navajo Nation to bring the first-ever cancer care and support facility to tribal lands in the United States. The center opened in 2019. Prior to the center’s opening, cancer patients on the Navajo Nation had to drive at least 200 miles to Flagstaff, Arizona, to receive basic treatment.
We are in the process of recreating this model in Montana. This project continues our community-based partnership efforts to provide culturally adapted cancer care services on tribal lands.
CSC believes that empowered patients should be at the center of health care decision making. We will continue working to break down inequities and barriers to cancer care to ensure that Native American people have access to, and can afford, the care and support services they need and deserve.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Cancer in American Indians and Alaska Natives in the United States.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health. (2021). Cancer and American Indians/Alaska Natives.
Kaiser Family Foundation. (2019). Uninsured Rates for the Nonelderly by Race/Ethnicity.