From 2001-2009, death rates from cancer decreased for white men and women. But for American Indians and Alaska Natives, the rate went up. In addition, a study by Department of Health and Human Services in 2013 shows the average life expectancy for American Indians in Montana is 20 years shorter than for non-Indians.¹
The U.S. has an agreement dating back to 1787 that requires the federal government to provide American Indians with free health care on reservations. This sounds good in theory, but in reality, it’s not that simple—the lack of health care is a bigger problem than you may think. So, what’s going on?
For one, reservations are remote and rural, making it harder to access healthcare. Often times, ambulances and medical tools are outdated and inefficient, with little access to internet services. Regular cancer screenings are less likely. For example, women not getting annual PAP smears is contributing to American Indians having the highest cervical cancer mortality of any population in the United States.²
The good news is that individuals, government agencies and universities are working hard to turn this problem around.
Montana now has a state Office of American Indian Health which is working to find reasons for health differences and to create plans to reduce them. The director, Mary Lunne Billy-Old Coyote explains, “I am from Montana. I am a member of the Chippewa Cree tribe. My dad is full-blooded Cree, so I grew up on Rocky Boy, I grew up on a reservation, and I grew up experiencing the health care. It’s unfortunate that the health care I experienced as a child is almost a mirror image of the health care that exists now. I’m 50 years old, so when you look at health care that has not changed in that time frame, that’s of great of concern.” She goes on to say, “We need to shift the conversation from health disparities to health equity.” (Missoulian, April 23, 2016.)
Montana State University has started the “Caring for Our Own Program,” (CO-OP) a support program for Native American and Alaska Native students pursuing their nursing degree at MSU. CO-OP’s goals are to increase the enrollment of American Indian nursing students in the College of Nursing at Montana State University and build a strong pool of American Indian and Alaska Native nurses who are prepared for practice, management, and leadership to serve Indian Country.³
As an individual, there are a number of things you can do to help prevent cancer:
Do not use commercial tobacco
Get regular screenings for breast, cervical and colorectal cancers
Maintain a healthy weight
Eat a diet with lots of fruits and veggies
Drink alcohol in moderation
If you need help paying for breast and cervical cancer screenings, we can help. For information, go to Healthy Gallatin Cancer Screening Program.
² Bell MC, Schmidt-Grimminger D, Patrick S, Ryschon T, Linz
L, Chauhan SC. There is a High Prevalence of Human
Papillomavirus Infection in American IndianWomen of the
Northern Plains. Gynecol Oncol. 2007;107(2):236-41.