By Yereth Rosen
Alaska Beacon 

CDC study finds Alaska Natives have highest colon cancer rate in the world


March 22, 2023

Alaska Natives continued to have the world’s highest rates of colorectal cancer as of 2018, and case rates failed to decline significantly for the two decades leading up to that year, according to a newly published study.

The study, by experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, compared colorectal cancer rates among Alaska Natives with those of other populations in Alaska, the Lower 48 and other parts of the world.

The 2018 colorectal cancer rate for Alaska Natives was 61.9 per 100,000 people, said the study, published in the International Journal of Circumpolar Health. Of the other countries used for comparison, only Hungary — which is consistently ranked as the nation with the highest colorectal cancer rates — had rates rivaling those for Alaska Natives, at 51.2 per 100,000 people.

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Colorectal cancer rates among Alaska Natives sharply differ from those for other Alaska demographic groups, the study said. From 2014 to 2018, the Alaska Native colorectal cancer rate was over twice that for Alaska’s white population and over three times that for Alaska’s Asian/Pacific Islander and Black populations, it said.

The rates vary within Alaska, with some regions far worse. Rates of colorectal cancer in parts of rural Alaska are up to 2.5 times as high as the state average, and patients in those rural areas appear to be getting diagnosed so late that the cancers are well advanced before they are identified, according to a report issued by the state Department of Health.

The report, issued last month by the department’s Alaska Cancer Registry, tracks rates of various types of cancers and their occurrences in different regions of the state from 2015 to 2019, the most recent years for which data is available. It updates a similar report released in 2020.

For colorectal cancer, rates were highest in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region, the report showed. The region has a case rate calculated at 102.4 per 100,000 people over the five-year study period, compared to the state average of 41.3 per 100,000, the report said.

The colorectal cancer rate in Southeast Alaska was slightly below the statewide average.

The results point to a need for more early screening in those rural areas, the state report said: “Effective screening programs should result in more cancers being found early, thus late-stage cancer rates should decrease.”

Colorectal cancer rates were much lower among other Indigenous groups in the United States than those for Alaska Natives, the CDC study found. The 2018 statistics showed that Alaska Native rates nearly twice as high as the next highest group, those in the Southern Plains region, and over five times that of the lowest group, which was in the Indian Health Service East region.

The study also tracked an apparent lack of meaningful progress in reducing colorectal cancer rates among Alaska Natives. While rates declined significantly for white Alaskans from 1999 to 2018, by 2.2% percent, the 1.05% decline over the same period for Alaska Natives was not considered to be statistically significant.

The Alaska Native colorectal cancer gender gap was small, with rates of 63.6 per 100,000 people for men and 59.8 per 100,000 for women.

Exactly why Alaska Natives have such high rates of colorectal cancer remain unclear. Among the possible factors being studied is a diet that is low in fiber from fruits, vegetables or whole grains. Another possible factor is the higher rates of tobacco use.

The high incidence of colorectal cancer among Alaska Natives has been a concern for several years. It has spurred health providers to recommend earlier and more frequent screenings for their Alaska Native patients. The ANTHC and Alaska Native Medical Center recommend that colorectal cancer screenings start at age 40, compared to the CDC recommendation of screening starting at 45 for the general population.

The SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium has been running a public service campaign this month, advising: “Don’t wait any longer for your colon cancer screening! Early detection saves lives.”

The CDC and Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium study shows the need for such screening, lead author Donald Haverkamp, a CDC epidemiologist, said by email.

“The important message here is that colorectal cancer affects both men and women and that colorectal cancer screening can help with both prevention and early detection of colorectal cancer. Screening tests can find polyps so they can be removed before developing into cancer. Screening also helps find colorectal cancer at an early stage when treatment works best,” Haverkamp said.

The 2018 statistics were the most recent available at the time the study was written, he said, and the authors used information from the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s Global Cancer Observatory, among other sources. Rates cited in the study were adjusted for age.

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization.


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