the many challenges that we as Indian women face, there is none
more fearsome than a diagnosis of cancer. Each one of us, at some
time or another, has known of, or had a direct experience with,
experienced or known someone who has experienced a loved one going
down that painful path, and never returning. I feel that I can
speak to you from the heart on this subject, as I recently took
part in my own father's final story involving cancer. My dad was
diagnosed with lung cancer, but far too late in the course of
his disease for anything to be done for him short of controlling
his pain and making him comfortable. In my heart, I know he would
still be here if it his cancer had been found earlier and treated.
Today, most cancers can be driven into remission if they are detected
early enough in the disease process. This is especially true for
breast cancer and cervical cancer, the two most common cancers
found in Indian women. Sadly, however, and for reasons both within
our control and outside it, we tend to be diagnosed at more advanced
stages of cancer and, as a result, we die unnecessarily.
can we do to reverse this trend? Since Because early detection is
the best strategy for a long life, we can resolve to establish an
ongoing relationship with a health care professional we can trust.
And then we can commit to seeing that clinician for a physical examination,
that which includes a Pap smear and breast exam every year. We can
learn the proper method for doing a breast self-examination and
then work this potentially lifesaving activity into a monthly routine
associated with our natural menstrual cycle. Between the ages of
45 to and 50, we can start having mammograms, and we should continue
this routine once every year for the rest of our lives.
something unusual shows up in any of these tests, we can muster
up the courage to follow it through, no matter how frightening or
difficult it seems. There is no avoiding this enemy. And, if we
have maintained a healthy vigilance anyway, chances are that the
news will be that this cancer can be beaten back. This is the lesson
that my father, and all of our loved ones who are no longer in this
world, would want to pass on to all their relations, Mitakuye Oyasin.
about those things that seem beyond our control? It is a documented
fact that minority women in the United States die of treatable cancer
at a much higher rate than dominant culture women. We are well aware
that this is because of a fundamental lack of access to basic health
care for financial reasons or because of distance from the nearest
health facility, or both. How do we develop an early detection strategy
coupled with diligent follow-up in the face of these obstacles?
answer to this question lies, as it often does, with coming together
in community and cause. As Indian women, we have always come together
to achieve our goals, whether it was to gather enough food to last
through a harsh winter or to advise our warriors and Elders on the
best way to deal with a problem. Once again, if we come together
we can find a way to make real progress on our path to better health
and longer life.
good news is that there is support out there, from both government
and private sources. A good first step might be to identify what
is already available.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) runs a program
called the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program.
This program provides a handy guide to all of the free or inexpensive
screening programs in the United States. It also provides a referral
guide to all of their tribal partners involved in providing CDC-based
screening to Indian women on reservations and in cities. This resource
can be found on the World Wide Web at: http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/nbccedp/contacts.htm
or by calling a toll-free telephone number: 1-888-842-6355. If your
tribe or reservation isn't listed in their resource guide, then
maybe you should approach your tribal council or local friendship
center and ask, why not?
addition, tribal councils and private organizations are getting
together to run special screening weekends and screening drives
in areas where distance and lack of financial resources are particularly
tough problems to overcome. In spring, 2003, this is exactly what
happened on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. The idea for
the project came from members of a College of American Pathologists
coalition who had already tried it in Los Angeles among Hispanic
women who were migrant workers.
a two-day screening drive that was called See, Test, and Treat,,
120 women were given full physical examinations, including pap smears
and mammograms. Their results were read and returned immediately.
Alarmingly, the screening indicated that the women of Rosebud were
two to three times more likely to have abnormal pap smears than
the general population. But the good news was that all of the abnormalities
detected were treatable and treated. All the women went home healthier
and looking forward to a life free of cervical cancer.
this project was undertaken and represents a remarkable moment in
time. It also demonstrated the value of and serves as a model for
local community health clinics to organizing smaller events in their
own communities. All that is needed, at the local level, is an the
incentive to do it. And we, as Indian women, are good at providing
incentives. There are organizations out there who will help with
planning, fundraising, and possibly, even funding. These include:
screening and checkups, persistence, and resolve are our best weapons
in detecting and defeating cancer before it gains an the upper hand
in our lives and the lives of our loved ones. Our role has always
been to safeguard and improve the conditions in our families, our
communities, and ourselves in order to ensure survival for the next
seven generations. Staying one step ahead of cancer and making sure
our loved ones are with us on the path to better health can be as
easy as that first phone call or a visit to the local library, where
we can connect ourselves to the resources that will help us.
Your Path to Health is a national public health education campaign
sponsored by the Office on Women's Health within the U.S. Department
of Health and Human Services. For more information about the campaign,
please call 1-800-994-WOMAN or 1-888-220-5446 (TDD), or visit the
National Women's Health Information Center at http://www.4woman.gov/PYPTH.
To request weekly health tips by e-mail, click on the box that says,
"Click Here for weekly health tips by e-mail."