A mine of data over 50 years shows that Native Alaskans have higher rates of cancer. It also shows opportunities to save lives.
Data from a new report released by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium shows that Alaskan natives currently have the highest recorded incidence of at least one type of cancer – colorectal cancer – in the world.
It also shows that while the rates of colorectal cancer among whites in the United States have declined over the past 50 years, these rates have remained high among natives of Alaska, representing a growing disparity. Cancer has long been a leading cause of death among Alaskan natives, since at least the late 1980s.
But the new report includes more than 50 years of data that will ultimately be used to track long-term trends in cancer, and that can help save lives, the researchers say.
“The purpose of this report is really twofold,” said Sarah Nash, director of cancer surveillance at ANTHC. “One is to provide the most recent data on cancer among Alaska Natives,” she said.
Second, she said, “we also show a very long history of data. Having so much data is really rare and invaluable enough to track progress, ”she said.
Nash manages the Alaska Native Tumor Registry, which tracks all cancer cases in the state, and was responsible for compiling the report. The data available in the report span from 1969 to 2018.
Nash said the encouraging news from the report is that the most common cancers among Alaska Natives – breast, colorectal and lung cancers – can all be caught early.
“The fact that these are screenable cancers means that we really have an opportunity here for cancer prevention,” Nash said.
Lifestyle changes such as eating a healthy diet, quitting smoking, and exercising can also help reduce the level of risk for all three cancers, Nash said.
The data being tracked is already being used for good, Nash said. In 2013, doctors at the Alaska Native Medical Center used data from previous reports to modify colorectal screening recommendations for Alaska Native patients at the ANMC.
Alaskan natives had higher rates of colorectal cancer in all age groups, but especially in the 40-49 age group, Nash said. So even though the national guidelines didn’t call for people this young to start screening for colorectal cancer, the Alaska Native Medical Center began recommending them for its patients 40 and older.
Having access to the many years of data in the report is essential because it allows cancer researchers to know where to direct their efforts and how to know if those efforts are working, Nash said.
“If we are successful, we will see these rates drop over time,” she said.
Eric Fox, who sits on the Alaska Advisory Board for the American Cancer Society and was not involved in developing the report, said that while he thinks it’s good news that there is Now so much data on cancer among Alaskan natives, what the data actually shows is cause for concern.
“A fifth of our deaths are attributed to cancer,” he said. ” It’s scandalous. And I don’t think all of this is known.
Fox lost her mother, Rhoda Fox, to cancer in 2017. She was from Kotzebue.
“I think my mom, like a lot of people in her generation, said to herself, ‘I’m fine. I can take it. I’m doing well.’ Even though there was pain involved. Even though there were signs and symptoms, ”Fox said. “Our people are resilient and strong, with what they have to endure in general. But, with this force, it can lead to perhaps some denial. And this is what we have to overcome.
Fox said that when he heard about the report, he hoped the data would help raise awareness of the importance of regular cancer screenings.
“For some reason in our community it is sometimes taboo to talk about these things,” he said. “We need to make an effort to encourage our elders to get tested and have these conversations,” he said.
“It will save lives. “
The more awareness there is, the more opportunities there are for progress, Fox said.
“My mom, some of her last words to me were, ‘Don’t let me go through this shit for nothing,’” Fox said. “And I take these words very seriously.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect spelling for Rhoda Fox’s first name.