A healthier tomorrow

Erelda Gene 225x150
Students work with the Partnership for Native American Cancer Prevention to help the Hopi tribe.

According to a report conducted by the Indian Country Today Media Network, cancer has surpassed heart disease as the leading cause of death for Native Americans. The number of cancer cases in Native Americans is often compounded by the lack of proper medical treatment and resources to conduct such research.

Despite graduating in 2012 with a degree in public health, Erelda Gene knew she could not ignore this problem. So in the fall of 2012, Gene returned to Northern Arizona University to finish her pre-requisites for optometry school, and began working with the Partnership for Native American Cancer Prevention (NACP) to study the effects of cancer on indigenous communities.

Northern Arizona University’s chapter of the NACP works to ensure the health and well-being of the Hopi tribe by conducting research that is often considered by the tribe to be contradictory to their beliefs. By informing Hopi tribe members of the dangers of commercial and ceremonial tobacco, students hope to lower cancer rates and improve the lifestyle of the tribe members.

To facilitate this goal, Northern Arizona University -- working in conjunction with the University of Arizona, the Arizona Cancer Center, and the NIH National Cancer Institute -- offers a variety of research opportunities in conjunction with the NACP. These can range from laboratory work to community-based research conducted by Priscilla Sanderson, an assistant professor of health sciences and applied indigenous studies. 

Balancing wellness and culture

Since the NACP’s inception at the university, Sanderson has recruited a small group of students to help her conduct research for the Chronic Diseases among the Hopi People project. Gene was one of these students, and recently, was able to present her findings at a variety of Native American conferences around the country. Through her work, Gene believes the NACP enables indigenous students to find their calling as they help one another.

“I feel like the NACP supports more Native Americans to get involved in science and research so they can pursue their master’s and PhDs,” Gene says. “The program helps introduce them to whatever interests they may have going forward.”

Rebecca Scranton, a senior public health major who hopes to one day study diseases while aiding communities in need, joined Gene in the NACP’s work to study the health behaviors and risk factors behind tobacco use. This research included focus on the attitudes and perspectives associated with individuals who regularly use tobacco.

Scranton says that, despite the ceremonial nature of tobacco within the tribe, the Hopi nation approached the NACP to conduct field work and help them develop strategies to limit tobacco use among their population.

“We want to educate ourselves on Hopi perspectives regarding cancer and tobacco, so that in the future, there might be beneficial programs that can be tailored to meet their needs,” Scranton says. “The Hopi had a concern about lung cancer rates, so they asked us to research the problems and figure out what’s causing these high rates, and if something can be done.”

Scranton says the NACP holds focus groups and town meetings at both the university and on the Hopi reservation in an attempt to better understand the cultural mindset behind tobacco use. Students then take the findings from interviews and past research to create solutions that will ultimately balance the Hopi’s cultural beliefs and overall health.

“Our goal is to create a successful program that can address the cancer rates, while remaining aware of the spiritual component that tobacco has in their ceremonies,” Scranton says.

A brighter future

Following the final collection and study of data, the NACP plans to present their findings to the Hopi Nation. Gene says she is thankful for the opportunity to conduct research that could greatly improve the health of the Hopi, as well as indigenous communities around the world.

"A lot of people we’ve worked with showed concerns about their health, but just didn’t know how to go about finding help,” Gene says. “My experiences with this program really showed me that as long as we can get people the information they need, they can use it to make things better."