SOURCE: Native Health News Alliance

Native Health News Alliance

March 30, 2015 11:02 ET

Building Pathways: How a Native Oncologist Makes a Difference With Cancer Care, Prevention

SAN DIEGO, CA--(Marketwired - March 30, 2015) - Judith Kaur first began to think of herself as a healer at five years old.

She says her grandmother, Ada, introduced her to nature and medicine by listening to animals outside and picking plants in the yard.

Ada would tell Judith her life path was to heal.

"I didn't know what that meant," Kaur recalls. "It wasn't a very logical path for me because neither of my parents graduated from high school. [My grandmother] instilled in me the thought that I should go on with my education."

Today, Dr. Judith Salmon Kaur (Choctaw/Cherokee) is one of only two American Indian medical oncologists in the country. Now an oncology professor at the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center in Rochester, Minnesota, she also directs the clinic's Native American outreach programs.

Oncology, Kaur says, keeps her busy. In 1994 she was first recruited to the Mayo Clinic to start a women's cancer program and help develop its hospice initiatives.

Since then, she's expanded its reach to Native communities by building a professional network for American Indian physicians and student mentoring program called Spirit of Eagles.

"This is what I was meant to do," Kaur says. "I really found my calling by taking care of cancer patients when I was a third-year medical student. One of the things I tell pre-medical students and medical students is that, 'You don't know what's going to really excite you until you get exposed to things, so leave your mind open.'"

Kaur specializes in women's breast and gynecologic cancers, some of the most common types of cancer in American Indians.

While American Indian and Alaska Native women have the lowest risk of cervical cancer in the country, they're about three times more likely to die of the disease than members of all other U.S. races, according to the latest data by the Indian Health Service.

Across the nation, there are an estimated 3,500 American Indian physicians and specialists in practice today and roughly 400 Native students are enrolled in the country's medical schools.

Since the 1960s, the Association of American Medical Colleges has recorded disparities in the number of American Indians in the field, says Marc Nivet, chief diversity officer at the AAMC.

More recently the rate of American Indians entering medical school plateaued in the mid-2000s, which has remained a steady trend in recent years.

"Our minority students, not just Native students, but African-American and Hispanics have always been lower [in numbers], but Native Americans have always been an extreme outlier," Nivet says. "It's less than one percent of the students in medical school who are Native American."

Dr. Andrew Haputa (Cherokee), a surgeon and president of the Association of American Indian Physicians, says for many young American Indians the road to becoming a physician is often its own challenge, one that can require them to leave their family and homelands behind.

"Suddenly you put [American Indian] people from a fairly different place in sort of like a pressure cooker and you tell them, 'You have them compete against some very smart people, work hard to be as good as them -- and by the way, you're going to be there by yourself," Haputa says.

Nivet says most of the academic challenges Native students face in medical school stem from inadequate education systems both inside and outside of Native communities.

Society suffers, he says, when talented Native American students who aspire to become physicians don't reach their full potential.

According to the AAMC, American Indian physicians are more likely to serve as primary care providers rather than specialists in areas like oncology and endocrinology.

Nivet believes that's because most students want to return to their own underserved communities to practice as community physicians. Kaur says few public health scholarships allow students to specialize.

"That's one of the policies that really does need to be changed," Kaur says. "In fact, there are very few general surgeons who are Native. There are some, but the system is geared to provide primary care because that's the basic requirement for the Indian Health Services is to provide primary care."

Back at the Mayo Clinic, Kaur also spearheads other programs such as Native WEB, which involves breast and cervical cancer prevention and screening training for nurses serving Native American and other underserved women.

She's also involved in Native C.I.R.C.L.E., which gathers culturally appropriate cancer education materials for clinicians working in Native communities.

Over the years, Kaur says, the discussion about cancer in Indian Country has changed. "The conversations now across Indian Country recognize that cancer is a common disease in Indians [when] people thought it wasn't, and that we can prevent cancer in some cases with lifestyle changes, and we can diagnose it earlier in a lot of cases."

Kaur hopes her work inspires young American Indians to take up the issues of Native health, particularly in cancer. "I'll continue to do what I do as long as I have health and the ability to do it, but at some point, the next generation has to pick up the challenge."

© Native Health News Alliance This is the latest in a series of cancer stories produced by the Native Health News Alliance (NHNA), a partnership of the Native American Journalists Association and the American Indian Cancer Foundation.

NHNA creates shared health coverage for American Indian communities at no cost. Registered users can download additional print, web and audio content at and publish as is or add their own reporting, highlighting important issues within the local Native community. NHNA services are free to all those who think good journalism has a positive impact in the lives of all of our readers, listeners, and viewers.

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