Native American Cancer Research-about us<
Native Americans and Cancer

We are dedicated to helping improve the lives of Native American cancer patients and survivors. We seek to reduce Native American cancer incidence and mortality, and to increase survival from cancer among Native Americans.

Although cancer incidence is decreasing among whites, it continues to increase among American Indians and Alaska Natives. Since World War II, and even more strikingly so within the past twenty years, nearly every American Indian and Alaska Native community has experienced suffering and death from this dread disease in their family members. Native cancer patients continue to have the poorest survivorship from cancer five years after diagnosis when compared with other minority, poor, and medically underserved populations.

In addition to producing this public service web site, our organization implements cancer primary prevention, secondary prevention, risk reduction, screening (early detection), education, training, research, diagnoses, control, treatment, support, quality of life, and / or studies of cancer among Native Americans. Our projects and studies are primarily supported by federal agencies (e.g., the National Institutes of Health) and national organizations (e.g., the National Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation).


Cancer among Native Americans is becoming a growing concern. Although those American Indians who live in the southwest region of the United States and Alaska Natives continue to experience low cancer incidence rates in comparison with whites, African Americans, Asians, and other races, within the last few generations cancer has become the leading cause of death for Alaska Native women and is the second leading cause of death among American Indian women.

Within the last 30 years, cancer has become the third leading cause of death for American Indians and Alaska Natives of all ages and is the second leading cause of death among American Indians older than 45 years of age.

In general, the cancer sites of most concern among American Indians and Alaska Natives include the lung, colon and rectum, breast, prostate, cervix, stomach, pancreas, and gallbladder.

A variety of psychosocial and cultural barriers and beliefs impact American Indians and how they might perceive the issue of cancer in their lives. Healthcare professionals caring for a Native American with cancer and their family members need to be apprised of these issues, which may affect the rapport between the provider and patient. Yet, until recently, few culturally acceptable materials were available, and there continues to be a need to develop resource materials for Native American women and other audiences interested in reducing cancer morbidity and mortality among native Americans. The following are imporant cultural issues...

Cultural Beliefs

Many older Native Peoples respect and prefer traditional medicine over medicine practiced by Western populations. There are numerous misconceptions related to cancer. For example, some Native Americans believe that a cancer diagnosis is synonymous with a death sentence. Sickness and death in general are perceived differently in Native cultures than among non-natives. Elders are respected and family members who are ill are cared for in the home.


To date,there are 217 native languages spoken and for some older native people, English may be a second language or not spoken at all. The majority of natives have a low reading level (56% complete high school). Most indigenous languages do not include a word for "cancer." The native translation for "cancer" in a few tongues is "the disease for which there is no cure" or "the disease that eats the body." In other languages, the same word is used to describe epilepsy, leprosy, and cancer, and there is no way to distinguish among such disorders. Many native cultures believe that one should not discuss a disease such as cancer because to discuss it is to invite the disease into one’s body.


Whites typically communicate in a linear manner: the speaker addresses the purpose, identifies the subject, describes the subject, then discusses the conclusions. However, native peoples tend to use a "circular" or story-telling communication style, incorporating many stories and examples. Native cultures in general require a longer "pause" between speakers as compared with speech patterns of white people, which typically involve people talking on top of another’s words. This "pause" is to allow a polite period for the initial speaker to add any other thoughts or ideas before the listener responds. Unfortunately, the "pause" has been misinterpreted among some non-natives as an indication that the native listener did not understand what was said. Finally, the native rate of speech among many tribes is significantly slower than the rate of speech among most non-natives.


Poverty has multiple, confounding effects on life priorities other than cancer (e.g., food, rent, clothing) and health priorities other than cancer (e.g., alcohol and/or substance abuse, violence, accidents, suicide, diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease). Poverty also may limit access to an Indian Health Service (IHS) facility or other medical services, a working telephone, transportation, and child care.

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