Utah researchers learning more about NHPI cancer rates

Jul 13, 2023, 9:49 AM | Updated: 10:03 am

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah researchers are learning more about cancer rates among Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.

In the past, the National Cancer Institute has grouped together Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders with those of Asian descent. For the first time, they’ve looked specifically at young NHPI individuals, and they’ve discovered they have the highest cancer death rates.

“When you put them together, you miss the whole picture,” said Dr. Mary Playdon, an investigator for Cancer Control & Population Sciences at Huntsman Cancer Institute.

Playdon said disaggregating Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander individuals from Asian groups — who historically have low cancer death rates — has revealed some disparities.

Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders, between the ages of 20 and 49, have the highest death rates from any type of cancer among all racial groups of that age bracket.

“Some research out of Utah has shown that females of Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander ancestry have up to four times higher risk of getting cancer of the uterus compared to white women,” Playdon said.

She said part of this can be attributed to things like metabolic health.

At Huntsman Cancer Institute, Playdon’s studying lifestyle strategies and changes in their diet to help these communities reduce their risk to cancer.

“It plays such a strong role in showing sentiment and showing love, so how can we promote healthy eating in a culturally appropriate way across the community?”

She’s getting assistance from students like Lusia Tamala, who is part of the new Pacific Islander Research Internship Program.

“Family and food is the main source of the culture,” Tamala said.

Her father is Samoan and was diagnosed with diabetes a year ago.

Playdon and Tamala are gathering traditional Polynesian recipes and switching them out with healthier versions.

“Palusami, kalua pork, teriyaki chicken, you know, all the good stuff. We’re still trying to make it healthier while it can still be enjoyed,” Tamala said.


Playdon recognizes the hurdles NHPI communities face after a cancer diagnosis. She said sometimes there’s a higher financial toxicity, which means more financial struggles, and that can impact accessing appropriate care. She said more studies need to focus on these groups exclusively.

“Less than 1% of NHPI research grants fund studies in the Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander community, less than 1%, and that’s unacceptable, so we need to change that.”

Playdon encourages Pacific Islander students to apply for her internship program. Interns will be paired up with scientific mentors for a 10-week summer research internship. For information on eligibility and how to apply, click here.

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Utah researchers learning more about NHPI cancer rates