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Cancer is a disease in which abnormal cells grow, divide, and spread. In most cancers, these abnormal cells form a mass called a tumor. (Not all tumors are cancer.) Cancers found in the blood or immune system do not form tumors. Most cancers are named for where they start. For example, lung cancer starts in the lung, and breast cancer starts in the breast. But cancers can spread. They can invade nearby tissues and organs. Or, they can break away and spread to other parts of the body. Symptoms and treatment depend on the cancer type and how advanced it is.
Cancers of the breast, lung, and colon are top cancers affecting American Indians and Alaska Natives. As a group, native people have lower cancer rates than non-Hispanic whites for most types of cancer. But, there are some exceptions. American Indian and Alaska Native women have higher rates of cancers of the stomach, liver, kidneys, and gallbladder, and are more likely to die of these cancers, than non-Hispanic white women. They also are more likely to have and die from cervical cancer than non-Hispanic white women. Also, cancer rates in American Indians and Alaska Natives vary widely across different parts of the country. For instance, Alaska Natives have rates of lung, colon, and breast cancer five times or more greater than those of Southwestern Indians.
A number of factors can affect a woman's cancer risk. Some factors, such as getting older and family history, cannot be controlled. Yet, you can lower your risk of some cancers by changing some aspects of your life:
- Don't smoke. If you smoke, try to quit. For help along the way, check out our Quitting Smoking section.
- Keep a healthy weight.
- Eat healthy foods. Eat lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
- Make physical activity a habit. Health benefits are gained by doing the following each week:
- 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity
- 1 hour and 15 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity
- A combination of moderate and vigorous aerobic activity
- Muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days of the week
- 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity
- Limit alcohol to no more than one drink per day.
Women also can protect themselves from cancer by getting regular checkups and screenings. Screening tests can help find cancers such as breast cancer, cervical cancer, and colorectal cancer. This way, if cancer develops, it is likely to be found early. Treatment often works best when cancer is found early. A vaccine given can protect women from infections that can cause cervical cancer.
Some American Indians and Alaska Natives don't get routine screening tests or checkups. Not having health insurance, a regular doctor, or living far from a health facility are important reasons why some people do not get screening.
We don't always know why one person develops cancer and another does not. Yet with a healthy lifestyle and routine screening, you will feel good knowing you are doing what you can to lower your cancer risk.
Explore other publications and websites
American Indian Health — This website is an information portal to information about the health of native peoples of the United States. The topics include cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and environmental health.
Cancer Surveillance Research: Overview of Native American Initiatives — NCI supports several projects among Native American populations to improve cancer epidemiology, screening, prevention, and treatments. It provides a forum to exchange information on cancer control research.
Gallbladder Cancer Treatment (PDQ) — This fact sheet describes gallbladder cancer, and its different stages. It provides an overview of treatment options and lists additional sources of information for patients.
Inside Knowledge Campaign: Get the Facts About Gynecologic Cancer — This site is designed to spread awareness to women about the different types of gynecological cancers. With early detection, treatments for gynecological cancers are very effective.
Native American Cancer Education for Survivors (NACES) Quality of Life Tree (Copyright © Native American Cancer Research) — This resource is designed to help Native Americans with cancer learn about treatment, clinical trials, side effects, and more. The section on spirituality has helpful information about traditional healing, spiritual beliefs, and natural and alternative healing.
Native American Healing (Copyright © American Cancer Society) — This publication discusses the use, effectiveness, and safety of traditional healing methods used by Native American healers.
Native American Warning Signs and Screening Information Brochure (Copyright © Huntsman Cancer Institute) — This brochure for Native Americans lists the warning signs of cancer and screening guidelines for men and women.
Reducing Health Disparities in Cancer — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has created a number of strategies to help decrease the amount of inequalities seen among minorities. This brief fact sheet describes these efforts.
Voices of Strength: Living After Cancer Treatment (Copyright © Lance Armstrong Foundation) — This is a brochure written specifically for American Indian/Alaska Native cancer survivors. It raises awareness of the physical, practical and emotional concerns of cancer survivors, lists resources and encourages survivors to seek support.
What You Need To Know About Cancer of the Colon and Rectum — This booklet provides information on the symptoms, detection, diagnosis, possible causes, and treatment of cancer of the colon and rectum. It also provides information to help people understand their personal risk of colon and rectal cancer, the importance of screening, and what to expect if cancer is found.
What You Need To Know About Lung Cancer — The diagnosis of lung cancer brings with it many questions and a need for clear answers. This booklet provides an overview of lung cancer, including its causes and risk factors. It describes the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of this disease, and includes lists of questions to ask your doctor from diagnosis through treatment.
Connect with other organizations
American Cancer Society
Huntsman Cancer Institute: Native American Outreach
Indian Health Service
Indian Health Service Clinical Support Center, OHR, IHS, OPHS, HHS
National Indian Women's Health Resource Center (NIWHRC)
Native American Cancer Research
Native Cancer Information Resource Center and Learning Exchange
Content last updated May 18, 2010.
Resources last updated May 18, 2010.
A federal government website managed by the Office on Women's Health in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
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