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Cancer screenings pay off

Cancer rates among American Indians and especially those in Minnesota and the northern Plains are skyrocketing, and it should be a wake-up call for Indian people to take heed.

Cancer rates among American Indians and especially those in Minnesota and the northern Plains are skyrocketing, and it should be a wake-up call for Indian people to take heed.

On Wednesday, the American Cancer Society released the first large-scale national study about cancer rates of American Indians and Alaska Natives. The study indicated that those living in Minnesota and the surrounding northern Plains have a 39 percent higher rate of colorectal cancer than non-Hispanic whites.

That's bad enough, but further studies indicate that American Indians in our region have a 197 percent higher rate of liver cancer, 135 percent higher rate of stomach cancer and 148 percent higher rate of gallbladder cancer than non-Hispanic whites.

That's several cancers right on our doorstep.

A few weeks ago, a close relative told me she was diagnosed with colon cancer. She said she'd never had a colonoscopy, and she did the procedure only as a part of a routine physical exam.


The procedure looks for polyps in the colon. Many people have polyps, but few of the polyps are cancerous. Usually, all polyps that are found are removed, and they are examined for cancer cells.

When they told my relative of the cancer, she could hardly believe it because she had no symptoms and considers herself very healthy. She'll be getting her treatment at the Roger Maris Cancer Center in Fargo, and she said she still doesn't have any symptoms.

Symptoms for colon cancer include blood in the stool, change in bowel habits, feeling that the bowel is not emptying completely, thin or narrow stools, abdominal discomfort, weight loss for no reason and unexplained anemia.

She is fortunate. Colon cancer is one of those cancers that's treatable with early detection. Her cancer hadn't spread.

I wrote a column about my first colonoscopy a couple of years ago. I, too, didn't think it was really necessary; but you know how doctors are, and mine insisted that it was time, especially at my age. It is recommended starting at 50 years old.

Well, I did it because they said I could watch the procedure on a television in the procedure room, and I thought I could write about it. I must be unusually susceptible to anesthesia, though, because as I turned over to watch the tube's journey through my innards, the next thing I knew, the nurse was waking me up.

I was disappointed because I didn't see what was going on. But when the doctor gave me a picture of a disease-free colon, I was pleased.

My colonoscopy was done at Altru in Grand Forks. Perhaps one of the reasons American Indians have such a high incidence of colon cancer is that colonoscopies are not routinely done as part of examinations at Indian Health Service clinics. There are a lot of Indian people on reservations who have no alternative but to use IHS facilities, yet they've come to distrust the facilities because of years of poor service. I also doubt funding would be approved for those routine exams.


According to my relative, colonoscopies used to be quite unpleasant. This summer, she had to have one because she was experiencing some of the symptoms. She was really scared. I told her that I couldn't even tell I'd had the procedure and had no aftereffects.

She was pleasantly surprised to find that in her case the same was true. Great improvements have been made in health care over the years, and that's one of them.

Here are some of my own thoughts about the high cancer rates: The high rate of liver cancer, I would guess, coincides with the high rate of alcoholism among Indian people. Alcoholism is the bane of reservations, as Dr. Monica Mayer, former doctor at the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota, told me.

Smoking is a curse, too, I told her. Too many American Indians think smoking is a part of our culture. They don't stop to think that it is not the same tobacco that was used in ceremonies many years ago.

I'm a little out on a limb on this one, but I suspect that the higher rates of gallbladder cancer may be linked to the higher rates of diabetes among Indian people.

Some things in our lives, we can do nothing about. But lifestyle changes and cancer screenings are among the things that we can do for ourselves, our families and our communities.

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