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Report details cancer rates among Native Americans
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
Filed Under: Health

Federal officials and health experts on Monday released the first comprehensive look at cancer rates among Native Americans.

The report found that American Indians and Alaska Natives suffer from cancer at rates lower than the general population. But significant geographic differences were detected across Indian Country.

For example, Native Americans in the Southwest had lower incidence rates than their white counterparts. But the opposite was true in Northern and Southern Plains and Alaska.

Certain types of cancers were also tied to location. In the Northern Plains and Alaska, lung and colorectal cancer rates among American Indians and Alaska Natives were significantly higher than the rates among whites.

"We are firmly committed to addressing cancer health disparities so that the benefits of decades of research can reach all Americans," said John E. Niederhuber, the director of the National Cancer Institute, a federal agency. "The fact that lung and colorectal cancers rates were higher in some American Indian and Alaska Native populations points to the work we still have to do."

The "Status of Cancer" report was based on nearly 30 years of data. It included a special section on American Indians and Alaska Natives, who make up about 1.1 percent of the U.S. population.

To ensure accurate data for Native Americans, whose racial status can often be misclassified, the study linked cancer records from 1995 through 2004 to an Indian Health Service patient registration database. The database includes records from IHS and tribal-operated facilities.

According to the data, cancer rates for American Indian and Alaska Native men ranged from a low of 262 per 100,000 in the Southwest to a high of 611 per 100,000 men in the Northern Plains. In comparison, white men went from a low of 513 per 100,000 men in the Southwest to a high of 578 per 100,000 in the East.

Among Native women, the rates ranged from a low of 219 per 100,000 in the Southwest to a high of 511 per 100,000 women in Alaska. For white women, the low was 404 per 100,000 in the Southern Plains while the high was 438 per 100,000 in Alaska.

Poverty, level of education and limited access to health care can contribute to high cancer rates. But American Indian and Alaska Native populations appear to be affected differently by these socioeconomic factors.

For example, poverty among Native Americans was three times that of the white population. Yet overall, their cancer rates were lower than the white population.

On the other hand, certain Native populations appear to be at higher risk for lung, kidney, and colorectal cancer due to heavy tobacco use. Federal studies have shown that American Indians and Alaska Natives in Northern Plains and Alaska smoke at extremely high rates.

"Cigarette smoking remains the single most important behavioral risk factor for cancer," the report said. "This is especially true for the AI/AN population, in which the use of both cigarettes and smokeless tobacco are substantially higher than in any other racial or ethnic population in the U.S."

Alcohol use, obesity and diabetes are also risk factors associated with cancer. American Indians and Alaska Natives suffer from all three at high rates.

In addition to documenting cancer rates, the report calls attention to the disparity of funding for Indian health care. "Funding for IHS is by Congressional appropriation and currently is at the level of $2,532, compared with $5,645 per capita personal medical services for U.S. citizens," the report said.

The government spends more on health care for prisoners than for American Indians and Alaska Natives, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said recently.

The report was published online yesterday and will be published in the November 15, 2007, issue of the journal Cancer. It was authored by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute and the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries, in collaboration with the Indian Health Service and the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine.

Get the Study:
Summary | Press Release | Questions and Answers | Full Report | Supplemental Data

Relevant Links:
Indian Health Service -

Related Stories:
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Heart disease, cancer showing up in Alaska Natives (10/19)
Health summit focuses on cancer among Indians (10/12)
Study looks at reducing heart disease among Indians (10/8)
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CDC documents premature deaths from heart disease (02/23)
CDC calls attention to health disparities in U.S. (02/09)

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