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Home > Resources > PAF Publications > PAF Guides & Major Publications > American Indian - Alaska Native > Cancers

There is no single national database that accurately presents comprehensive data for Native American populations. There are multiple errors and limitations within the Native American cancer data, which typically result in undercounting the number of cancer cases and death.

the most common forms of cancers in American Indian and Alaskan Natives are colorectal, lung, breast, prostate, and stomach cancer.



Colrectal Cancer
Alaskan Natives are almost four times more likely to get colorectal cancer, and just as likely to die from the disease. Colorectal cancer is highly preventable and is curable when caught early. Most cases of the disease begin as noncancerous polyps, which are grape like growths lining the colon and rectum. These polyps can become cancerous. Removing the polyps can prevent colorectal cancer from ever developing. In the early stages of colon cancer, there are often no symptoms. This means someone could have colon cancer and not know it. This is why it is extremely important to be tested regularly. Colon cancer can have some symptoms.

Signs and Symptoms:
  • Rectal/anal bleeding
  • Blood in or on the stool (bright red)
  • Change in bowel habits
  • Stools that are thinner than usual
  • General stomach discomfort (bloating, fullness and/or cramps)
  • Diarrhea, constipation or feeling that the bowel does not empty completely
  • Frequent gas pains
  • Weight loss for no apparent reason
  • Constant tiredness
  • Vomiting


If you have any of these symptoms for more than two weeks, see your health care professional immediately. These symptoms may be caused by several other conditions. You need o be evaluated to determine the cause of your symptoms.

Risk Factors:
  • Personal or family history of colon cancer or polyps
  • Personal or family history of inflammatory bowel disease (colitis or Crohn's disease)
  • Lack of fiber in the diet
  • Age


Prevention/Best Defense:
  • Diet high in fiber, fruits, and vegetables
  • Increased fluid intake of non-alcoholic beverages
  • Screening tests beginning at age 50 (unless high risk) or as indicated by a medical professional
  • Limit intake of red meat to once a day




Lung Cancer
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States and the second leading cause among the Alaskan Native population.

Signs and Symptoms:
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Coughing up blood
  • Chest pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Extreme tiredness/fatigue
  • Chronic cough
  • Hoarseness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fever without a known reason
  • Wheezing
  • Repeated bouts of bronchitis and/or pneumonia


Risk Factors:
  • Tobacco use
  • Age
  • Family history
  • Diet and lifestyle
  • Exposure to asbestos, radon, or other hazardous chemicals found in the workplace (miners, etc.)
  • Marijuana use
  • Reoccurring inflammation of the lungs and lung tissues
  • Little/too much Vitamin A in diet




Breast Cancer
Most people consider breast cancer strictly a women's disease, but men are also at risk of developing breast cancer. The "fear factor" often causes women to delay medical screening or ignore breast lumps found during self breast exams. Myths about cancer, social stigma, denial, poverty, and lack of health education and/or insurance also contribute to delays in access to care and treatment.

Signs and Symptoms:
  • A lump is present/found, which is usually firm and most often painless
  • A portion of the skin on the breast or underarm swells and has an unusual appearance
  • Veins on the skin's surface become more obvious on one breast
  • The breast nipple can become inverted, develop a rash, change skin texture, or have a discharge other than breast milk
  • A dent/impression is found in an area of teh breast surface


Women's breasts can develop some degree of lumpiness, but only a small percentage of lumps are found to be cancer.

While Alaska Natives are less likely to develop breast cancer than other ethnic groups, they are more likely to experience delays in diagnosis and treatment. income, lack of health education/insurance and no access to screening account for some but not all the delays. A majority of breast cancer cases occur in women with no identifiable risks and often have no symptoms. Some factors cannot be controlled such as age, gender, personal/family history, and early menopause.

Risk Factors:
  • Lack of cancer screening and follow up of abnormal results
  • Physical inactivity
  • Poor diet and nutrition
  • Overweight/obesity
  • Drug and/or alcohol abuse
  • Tobacco use
  • Not having children or having first child after age 30
  • History of radiation therapy to the chest or upper body
  • Environmental factors


Prevention/Best Defense:
  • Personalized risk assessment
  • Early screening - Annual mammography should begin at age 40 (or as directed by a medical professional) and then as recommended
  • Annual clinical breast exam by medical professional beginning at age 20
  • Monthly self breast exam





Prostate Cancer
Nationally, prostate cancer is the second leading cause of death among men. When directed early, before it has spread to other organs, prostate cancer may be curable. Many men with prostate cancer often have no symptoms. If symptoms do appear, they can include:

Signs and Symptoms:
  • Blood in urine or semen
  • Need to urinate frequently, especially at night
  • Weak or interrupted urine flow
  • Pain or burning feeling while urinating
  • Inability to urinate
  • Constant pin in lower back, hips or upper thighs
  • Difficulty beginning or holding back urine
  • Difficulty having erections
  • Painful ejaculation


    • Risk Factors:
      • Family history
      • Age
      • Diet high in animal fats
      • Unhealthy lifestyle


      Prevention/Best Defense:
      • Annual medical exam beginning at age 45 to include digital rectal exam
      • Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) blood test beginning at age 50 (unless you are in a high risk category) or as recommended by your health care professional
      • Healthy eating habits