Culture May Help Raise Breast Cancer Death Rate for American Indians

Fatalism, stigma barriers to prevention and treatment for this hard-hit group, study finds

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FRIDAY, July 24, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- A new study finds that the high death rates from breast cancer in American Indian and Alaskan native women are linked to cultural beliefs, not barriers such as poor access to health care.

The findings are significant, because breast cancer ranks second on the list of cancer-related deaths in American Indian and Alaskan native women, and these women also have the lowest five-year survival rate when compared with other ethnic groups.

University of California-Davis and community researchers found cultural and tribal issues have an impact on the fight against cancer.

In some native languages, the translation for cancer is "the sore that never heals," reflecting the belief that cancer can't be defeated. Among other groups, cancer carries a stigma that can have a negative impact on screening programs.

"My experience with people who did not survive their cancer is that many of them didn't tell anyone except for those very, very close to them," said Linda Navarro, co-chair of the project and a member of the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla tribe. "One of the reasons is that they didn't want to be a burden to anyone."

The study showed that offering screenings doesn't help if people don't get them.

"The results highlight the significance of cultural beliefs and attitudes when designing effective cancer-risk reduction and cancer-control interventions," said Marlene von Freiderichs-Fitzwater, the assistant adjunct professor of hematology and oncology, and director of the UC Davis Outreach, Research and Education Program. "Access to mammography screening and quality follow-up care are critical, but we learned that access is not the only barrier to improving breast cancer screening rates among AI/AN women."

Researchers with UC Davis and the Turtle Health Foundation, a nonprofit organization that coordinates health care for American Indians, also found that more holistic educational interventions designed by American Indian and Alaskan native women prompted women in those communities to get mammograms and to make healthy lifestyle changes, such as eating better and getting more exercise.

Funded with a grant from the California Breast Cancer Research Program, the study led to a more culturally sensitive approach to breast cancer morbidity and mortality. Called the "Mother's Wisdom Breast Health Program," it was disseminated using storytelling, talking circles and other traditional methods of communication.

More information

The National Breast Cancer Foundation has more information on breast cancer here.

SOURCE: University of California-Davis, news release, July 20, 2009

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