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Cross-Cultural Cancer Prevention

Most Native American languages don't have a word for "cancer." Translating the symptoms and communicating preventative measures for the disease is nearly impossible when an entire population doesn't even know what to call it.

Priscilla Sanderson, a Navajo assistant professor of health sciences and applied indigenous studies, is researching ways to change that through her work at Northern Arizona University and involvement in the Partnership for Native American Cancer Prevention.

Sanderson works with the Hopi Nation to discover the best channels of communication to share information about cancer. Sanderson's goal is to help more Native Americans understand the importance of annual check-ups and cancer screenings, and the resources available to them, so that they can make health care decisions more quickly.

"At this point we don't have a cohesive, integrated resource that's providing all these types of information," she says. "We need a way to help patients and family members navigate treatment options in their first language, whether it's Navajo or English."

Developing culturally-relevant information

Sanderson was also involved in a study that evaluated how Navajo women reacted to a culturally-relevant informational video.  In the study, 14 Navajo women diagnosed with breast cancer viewed a video about breast cancer treatment options. The women reported reduced anxiety about treatment and interest in cancer support groups immediately after viewing the film.

One striking example of the video’s effectiveness involved a Navajo woman who broke down in tears while watching the video. The woman’s son, who had been translating for his mother, told a researcher, “She now realizes…what’s going on.” Sanderson says that because the video was culturally relevant to the group, it was an effective teaching tool that enhanced communication between the patients and their health care providers.

"I look at the attitudes and beliefs that Native people have, related to cancer. From there, we can design our educational module to that population, age level, and gender," Sanderson says.

Sanderson has also recruited undergraduate, master’s, and first-year medical students to help with her work, some of whom approach her for her thoughts on additional research topics in Native American  cancer treatment and prevention. Two John and Sophie Ottens Native American undergraduate research scholars from Northern Arizona University will join Sanderson in the field this summer, and visit Native American communities to assist with focus group interviews.

Toward a better quality of life

Sanderson was recently awarded a $6 million grant to lead the new Center for American Indian Resilience (CAIR) at Northern Arizona University. CAIR will partner health researchers with tribal communities to draw from Native American culture in designing health education programs. The program will also encourage Native American youth to go to college and become researchers or health professionals, with the hope that they will return to their communities and provide health education or services to tribal members.  

As she continues to tap into the knowledge, attitudes, and belief systems related to cancer, Sanderson wants her work to help create a better quality of life for Native Americans. She strives to be the link between the fast-moving discoveries in the labs and the communication of those discoveries to people on the Reservations.

"We need to have these two disciplines work closely together," Sanderson says. "That's what I'm hoping I will be able to contribute."