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Why More Native American Women Die from Breast Cancer than Other Cultures

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and there are vast amounts of information on prevention, detection and treatment of breast cancer. As a matter of fact, the amount of information available is almost overwhelming and many may wonder why it needs repeating. After all, women and men alike know the recommendations for doing monthly breast self-exams and having regular mammograms after the age of 50 or sooner if there is a family history.

Unfortunately, even though the importance of breast cancer screenings is well known, Native American women are still dying at a higher rate than other women of this often-detectible and treatable disease.

The Journal of Cancer Education reports, “Despite having a lower incidence of breast cancer than [Caucasian] women, Native American women are more likely to be diagnosed at younger ages and at later stages.”

According to a study by the CDC, “Over the last 20 years, cancer death rates fell more quickly among [Caucasian] people than among Native American people. Death rates for all cancers combined went down for [Caucasian] men and women but went up for Native American men and women. In addition, [Caucasian] people lived longer than Native American people after being diagnosed with nearly all types of cancer.”


Why are cancer rates higher among Native Americans?

Native Americans have unique cancer patterns because of their history and culture, where they live and how they obtain their health care. The early detection (or lack thereof) and survival rates are related to social, behavioral and environmental factors. The American Indian Cancer Foundation offers the following insight as to why more Native Americans are at risk of developing cancer and dying from cancer:

Native Americans have a high burden of cancer risk factors:

  • Tobacco and alcohol use
  • Diets high in animal fats and low in fiber, fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Family genes that increase cancer risk

Native Americans face barriers to prevention and care:

  • Low awareness of cancer risks and screening options
  • Distrust of medical systems and research
  • Fear of screening tests or results
  • Traditional beliefs that may conflict with prevention practices
  • Limited availability of prevention programs, cancer screenings and specialist care


Cancer Prevention

Fortunately, there are steps that can be taken toward prevention. Some risk factors cannot be changed, although making good lifestyle choices can lower the risk, regardless of age, race or sex. Here are few steps to decrease the risks of developing cancer:

Limit alcohol. The more alcohol you drink, the greater your risk of developing breast cancer.

Don’t use smoke. Evidence shows a link between smoking and breast cancer risk, particularly in premenopausal women.

Control your weight. Being overweight or obese increases the risk of breast cancer, especially if obesity occurs later in life, particularly after menopause.

Be physically active. The Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity weekly, plus strength training at least twice a week.

Eat a healthy diet. Eating a healthy diet high in plant-based foods and low in processed foods can decrease your risk of some types of cancer, as well as diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

Be vigilant about breast cancer detection. If you notice any changes in your breasts, such as a new lump or skin changes, consult your primary care provider. Also, ask your provider about when to begin mammograms and learn how to do monthly breast self-exams so you can remain vigilant in the fight against breast cancer.


Breast cancer affects one in six women during their life. With early detection and proper treatment, the long-term survival rates for breast cancer are nearly double when caught early than when breast cancer is found in stages III or IV.

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month. There is no greater way to honor yourself and your loved ones than to make an appointment with your physician for an annual checkup and breast cancer screening. Breast cancer is treatable, and through community efforts and proper training, we are working towards making it a less of a significant impact within our Northern Arizona’s communities. FBN



By Jeff Axtell, M.Ed.



NACA embraces a holistic, integrated approach to caring for the whole person. Blending general health and wellness, behavioral health, community services, exercise and nutrition and support groups results in healthier individuals, families and communities NACA offers integrated care to all people of all cultural backgrounds, which include behavioral health services, lifestyle change classes and a low-cost fitness center, all at the same location. To learn more about all the services and programs NACA offers, visit or call 928-773-1245. Stay up to date on new services, events and health topics by following NACA on Facebook.





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