Ten years ago, Sarah Deer was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer.

“I was only 33 at the time," Deer said, "so extremely young for that level of breast cancer.”

Deer, a visiting law professor and alumna of the University, is part of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma. After discovering that she had breast cancer, she had five major surgeries and two minor surgeries. She also underwent chemotherapy for six months. She was "sidelined" for over a year, she said.

“My life was not really the same during that first year, particularly," Deer said. "But my second year, I was trying to put it back together.”

Deer, who is part of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma, is now cancer-free. But throughout the process and during her diagnosis, she had access to quality medical help. However, she said this is not always the case with Native American women.

In 2009, the AHRQ National Healthcare Disparity annual report found that Native Americans and Alaskan Natives received worse care for about 30 percent of quality measures and had worse access to care than white people.

“Most Native American women that experience cancer do not have top healthcare,” Deer said.

Deer said she thinks the problem is a result of limited access to health facilities.

“Our communities are so isolated and spread out that you may have to drive two and a half hours to a doctor appointment,” she said. “And the only way to address that is more access to treatment facilities.”

First Nations Student Association president Landri James, who is a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation and the Kickapoo Nation, agreed with Deer that there could be better services on reservations to address health problems.

There is a clinic on the Prairie Band Potawatomi reservation, which James is a part of, but she said if something was serious, the patient would be forced to go elsewhere. 

According to the American Indian Humanitarian Foundation, individuals that live on the Pine Ridge Native American Reservation, which is located in South Dakota, have to travel approximately 120 miles to get to a mid sized community, Rapid City. There are many Native American communities who face those same difficulties. 

James said additional programs, like those that teach women to perform self-breast examinations, would improve breast cancer awareness in Native American communities.

If a health problem was so severe, clinics on reservations may not be able to have the tools to help the patient if they are in critical condition, James said. Improving the clinics and facilities on reservations is key to having better health for Natives.

“It’s really important for people to become educated about these issues on their own and show concern with their elected representatives,” she said. “In the case of Native women, it is important to notify elected representatives that congress needs to make these changes.”

Deer said she wants everyone, not just Native people, to get involved in the effort to improve access to healthcare.

“The problem is there's not enough Native people to make political change," Deer said. "We really need non-Indians to understand the issues and make changes so [Native Americans] do not suffer this level of disparity."

— Edited by Christian Hardy

Recommended for you