WASHINGTON – Dressed in American Indian garments,Celeste Whitewolf announced that when she was diagnosed with breast cancer10 years ago,her chance of survival was 33 percent.
“But I'm still here,” she said. “As a people,as individuals,we're survivors.”
Whitewolf was one of three speakers Thursday at a conference hosted by the Intercultural Cancer Council Caucus. The organization released a report,”From Awareness to Action: A Renewed Call to Eliminate the Unequal Burden of Cancer.”
The study says that people who live in isolated and poor regions of the United States do not get the tests they need to detect cancer early or the treatments they need to fight it. They die earlier as a result.
“Many Americans are invisible when it comes to the war on cancer,” said Lovell Jones,the ICC's cofounder and past chair.
The study showed that,although cancer rates were previously reported to be lower in American Indians and Alaska Natives,the number has increased in the past 20 years. The group also has the poorest survival rate for “all cancers combined” compared to other racial groups.
Cancer remains the country's second-leading cause of death. Last year,according to the American Cancer Society,1.4 million Americans were diagnosed with cancer and 556,000 died from it.
The study quotes research reports that found black men had a 36 percent higher rate of cancer death and black women 17 percent higher than white men and women. In the Appalachian Region,where there are high poverty rates,breast cancer mortality rates were 33 percent higher than any other ethnic group in the U.S.
The study looks at the specific problems facing racial and ethnic group,including rural poor whites. The study targeted people from Indian reservations,Alaska,Hawaii and Pacific Islands,who continue to have death rates “similar to third world countries.”
The study includes a 12-step action program to help “invisible” cancer patients who are not receiving adequate health care because of their remote locations and poverty,which Jones called the “thread” that weaves them together.
Neal Palafox,a professor at John A. Burns School of Medicine at the University of Hawaii,said that pap smears,colonoscopies and prostate-specific antigen tests are either difficult or impossible to come by for these groups.
Maria Pangelinan,executive director of Ayda Network,a human and social service provider in Saipan who attended the conference,said she was impressed with Whitewolf.
“I did not really know others beside the Pacific Island regions that are going through a similar problem,” Pangelinan said.
Saipan is the most populated of the three inhabited islands of the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in the Western Pacific.
The hospital in Saipan has two nurses trained to perform chemotherapy,but if they leave or retire,there is no one to replace them,Pangelinan said. General practice doctors usually stay for two-year contracts. There are no oncologists or radiologists on the islands,and Guam is the closest place to receive treatment. A round-trip plane ticket is $200 to $300,she said,on top of the cost of a hotel room and food.
“It's too much for the patient,” Pangelinan said.
It also makes it difficult for families to provide emotional support,she said,since the trip is too expensive for many to make. Palafox said that 95 percent of the area is living below the U.S. poverty level.
Medicare and Medicaid are available,Pangelinan said,but only through approved hospitals or doctors,and the fastest route to one is a seven- to eight-hour plane ride to Honolulu. A round-trip ticket can costs $1,300 to $1,500.
Palafox said even screening for cancer is difficult. Testing supplies are not always stocked,and if they were,sending them to the mainland for processing is still too high.
Pacific Islanders per capita receive $98 per person a year in health care,compared $5,700 for all U.S. residents,according to a 2005 estimate from the Census Bureau.
Pangelinan said her cousin was recently diagnosed with a type of cancer that affects her immune system. The cousin flies to Guam once a week for chemotherapy.
“We do have a family history of cancer,” Pangelinan said. “That's why we have a strong passion for finding programs and services that will… provide support.”