Clinical Topics & News

“Unique” Challenges for Screening Native American Women

Cancer screening among Native American women remains a challenge based on traditional beliefs and economic factors.


American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) women face the same barriers as all low-income minority women face in accessing preventive care, but according to researchers from Rutgers University in New Jersey and University of Arizona, they also face “unique challenges and circumstances.” The researchers reviewed 18 studies to find out more about facilitators of, and barriers to, breast cancer screening.

Low-income women are more likely to be diagnosed at a later stage and to die of breast cancer, one study found. The factors are well known: cost, lack of a usual source of care, lack of insurance, distance from a facility, and lack of transportation.

However, the researchers of the meta-analysis say, “compounding these barriers,” AI/AN women expressed the belief that preventive care is not a priority, especially when it is their own preventive care. Moreover, some barriers that might be unique to the AI/AN women included concern with “manifest destiny”: the assumption that thinking or talking about breast cancer can cause it, for instance. One study examined “traditionality” and found women who could be seen as more traditional, defining themselves as living an “Indian way of life,” were less likely to be current with screening. Other women expressed mistrust in the technology of screening or spoke about perception of discrimination in the health care system.

Although this population has access to screening through IHS facilities, women who also have insurance (typically Medicaid) are more likely to get screened. Women in rural areas who lived near an IHS facility were more likely than were urban women to get mammograms. The researchers suggest this could be because rural women are more likely to be isolated from other mammogram facilities. Too, the IHS is “chronically underfunded,” the researchers note, likely a cause of the health disparities and limiting scope of services.

Their review made clear that efforts to intervene with AI/AN women to increase breast cancer screening have been limited, the researchers say. The intervention studies they reviewed “were not successful in improving screening rates or adherence.” The qualitative studies, on the other hand, suggest that women may be more responsive to locally supportive, targeted, and culturally appropriate interventions that respect traditionality yet encourage trust in the medical system.

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