Since 1965, when a surge in the Asian Pacific Islander population found refuge in America, there has been a shift in predominant illnesses that afflict women’s health. Currently, the US Department of Health Services notes that API women currently have the highest life expectancy ranging from 81 to 86 years of age compared to other ethnic groups. However, there are unique health risks and factors that threaten the well-being of this population.

Genetic make-up, environmental factors, access to care, and cultural beliefs are unique characteristics that affect the health of every racial and ethnic group. API women particularly make infrequent clinical visits due to the fear of deportation, language/cultural barriers that prevent women from accurately voicing their health issues, and a lack of health insurance to seek out medical assistance.

According to the US National Library of Medicine on Asian American Health, API women were the first population in the US to have cancer as the leading cause of death since 1980. Even women who have emigrated from countries with overall lowest breast cancer rates in the world now succumb to this staggering fact.

The Intercultural Cancer Council (ICC) asserts that there is a high rate of API women living with liver cancer, which is usually caused by exposure to the Hepatitis B virus, making it the third leading cancer among Asian Americans. Approximately one-half of women who gave birth to Hepatitis B-carrier infants in the United States were foreign-born Asian women. Lung cancer remains the leading cause of cancer deaths.

Cancer surpassed heart disease in 2000 to become the most fatal illness for Asian-Americans and constituting 27 percent of all deaths compared to that of all deaths among Caucasians in 2005.

API women are also at high risk for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, HIV/AIDS, liver disease, hepatitis B, and tuberculosis are prevalent in this demographic as well.

The ICC also asserts that there is an unusually high rate of coronary artery disease among Asian Indians. Parasitic infections are particularly widespread among Southeast Asian refugees while Vietnamese women face cervical cancer rates that are five times more than that of Caucasian women (breast cancer is the leading cancer threatening all other racial and ethnic groups). Filipinos have the second least favorable five-year survival rates for colon and rectal cancers.

Preventative Measures

Because API women important contributors to American society, as detailed in previous articles of this issue, they are encouraged to take the following steps to minimize the risk of the aforementioned diseases:

  • Conduct self-breast examinations regularly. Susan G. Comen for the Cure suggests having mammogram and clinical breast exams every year starting at age 40 if you are at average risk; have a clinical breast exam at least every 3 years starting at age 20.
  • Make an appointment for annual exams to catch early signs of cervical, lung, colon, and skin cancers. The Seattle Cancer Care Alliance notes that strong strains of the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) along with abnormal cells are the main causes of pre-cancer and cancer of the cervix. Having regular Pap smears to detect these cells increases the chances of survival by about 90 percent in cervical cancer cases.
  • Get informed about your family’s history of cancer and diseases, as some of them run in the family.
  • Protect yourself from sexually transmitted diseases through vaccinations, using various forms of birth control, or by practicing abstinence.
  • Although Southeast Asian women often subscribe to herbal remedies when diagnosed with cancer, consider seeking out western treatment at medical institutions to increase the chances of remedy and survival.
  • Maintain a healthier standard of living by avoiding tobacco usage, exercising regularly, eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily, upholding a healthy weight, limiting sun exposure to avoid skin damage, etc.
  • Become active in community to fight against these health risks by perusing through the websites of distinguished research centers and institutes to find ways to get involved (i.e. Fred Hutchinson, Planned Parenthood, National Cancer Institute).
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