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Cancer rate for Minnesota tribal members higher

Jo-Anne Stately, of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, dances during the Powwow for Hope in Minneapolis in May. Stately is a cancer survivor and is on the American Indian Cancer Foundation's board.

MINNEAPOLIS — Inside the cavernous Base Camp facility at Fort Snelling, a long line of cancer survivors made a slow procession around the perimeter of the former cavalry drill hall. Their presence at a gathering of American Indians is solemn, supportive and startling.

"A lot of survivors," an MC announced over a drumbeat. "So, survivors, come on out."

Cancer has devastated Minnesota's American Indian population, stripping families of breadwinners and robbing children of their parents and grandparents.

Nowhere is the scale of the problem more evident than during the annual spring Powwow for Hope, where dancers dressed in vibrant traditional costumes escorted the survivors until their line morphed into a vast circle.

Overhead, a projector cycled through dozens of photographs and names of American Indians who have lost their cancer battles in the past year. The tribute also included stories of hope and cancer remission.


Among the cancer survivors whose picture flashed on the screen was Robert DesJarlait, a 67-year-old member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa. Ten months earlier, doctors removed a cancerous tumor from his colon.

"It's kind of ironic that I was at this powwow last year and didn't know for sure that I officially had cancer," he said.

When it comes to cancer — Minnesota's No. 1 cause of death — American Indians are almost always on the wrong end of the state's data on the health disparity that exists between whites and minorities.Their risk of dying from lung cancer is more than two times higher than it is among non-Hispanic whites. Their rates of cervical and larynx cancer are four times higher.

American Indians also have the state's highest rates of colorectal, kidney and oral cancers.

While the statistics are grim, they are not immutable. Striking new research has revealed that more than half of the state's American Indians smoke. Their smoking rate is so high it likely explains much of their excess cancer burden.

The stark data are making it easier for some native people to question their community's complicated relationship with tobacco. The research also is providing much-needed direction on where native people can most effectively focus their cancer-fighting efforts.

DesJarlait, a visual artist, is among those who have changed their lifestyles.

During a break in the program DesJarlait said he considers himself fortunate. His cancer was detected at an early stage, and his treatment has been successful. After being weakened by the disease and treatment, he felt strong enough to dance at this year's powwow.


One of the biggest lifestyle changes he made was quitting tobacco. He switched to electronic cigarettes after his doctor warned him that his cancer could return if he didn't quit his two-pack-a-day smoking habit.

"And I said, 'You mean smoking caused the tumor in my colon?' And she said, 'Yes, well it's one of the factors.'"

While there are many potential causes of cancer — from genetics to poor diet and lack of exercise — tobacco use is strongly related to the cancers that most affect Minnesota's native people.

"We can't talk about cancer in American Indian communities without addressing the high rates of tobacco and the rates of secondhand smoke exposure in our communities," said Kris Rhodes, a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and executive director of the American Indian Cancer Foundation. The nonprofit organization sponsors the Powwow for Hope and is one of the community's biggest voices in urging Indian people to quit smoking.

A recent tribal tobacco use survey found that 59 percent of Minnesota's native people smoke. Nearly 3,000 people completed the questionnaire, making it the largest tobacco survey ever conducted among American Indians in Minnesota.

Jean Forster, co-author of a report on the survey, said a 59 percent smoking rate is "an unbelievable number" because it is nearly four times higher than Minnesota's overall adult smoking rate of 16 percent.

"Fifty-nine percent means that most people smoke, most adults smoke. Most kids see that most adults smoke," she said. "It's a normative behavior for those communities."

The survey wasn't designed to reveal why the smoking rate is so high in American Indian communities.


But Forster, a University of Minnesota epidemiologist, said it's obvious that Minnesota's anti-smoking campaigns have either failed to reach native people or have had little effect on them.

"What we're doing for the population just is not working," she said. "This is the same smoking rate that the population as a whole experienced at its peak in the '60s."

By that measure, Forster said, it could take decades for American Indians to change their minds about smoking.

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