This week is National Minority Cancer Awareness Week. Nearly 50 Native people are in Washington, DC at the 10th biannual Intercultural Cancer Council Symposium.
Yakima tribal member Ellen DoubleRunner is a cancer survivor and works with cancer patients on her reservation in Washington state. As a medical support assistant for the Northwest Native American Patient Navigator program, she helps tribal members with transportation, finances and treatment. DoubleRunner says they’re working on survival rates by trying to get patients the best care they can.
“You get diagnosed and you wait a while and you wait a while, then you start treatment. Well, we’re trying to speed that process up.”
Teresa Guthrie, project manager of Spirit of E.A.G.L.E.S. Community Networks Program, a cancer program, says Native Americans and Alaska Natives have the overall poorest survival rate for any ethnicity. Guthrie says this seems to point to barriers in tribal communities.
“There are many answers on access. Access—you know, where tribes are located—do they have access to cancer treatment centers that can provide appropriate, culturally relevant care to the community members?. Certainly, the IHS system has challenges providing primary care, but when you talk about someone who has been diagnosed with cancer, the issues are, you know, definitely more complex.”
Guthrie says education and community support are the best ways to help reduce cancer disparities.
“Cancer survivors within the tribal communities are the most—have become the most vocal advocates for addressing the issues that—you know, the barriers and the challenges to survivorship and access to treatment. So that’s a good starting place.”
Cancer is the second-leading cause of death for American Indians over the age of 45, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. And studies show cancer is now the leading cause of death among Alaska Natives.