Breaking Barriers to Better Native American Health

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Priscilla Sanderson: PhD, CRC

Assistant Professor, Health Sciences and Applied Indigenous Studies

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.

Working with the Hopi Nation, Sanderson is currently discovering which channels of communication work best to get the word out about the disease. Sanderson's end goal is to help more Native Americans understand the seriousness of annual check-ups, cancer screenings, and resources available to them, so that they can make health care decisions in a timely manner.

"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."

Sanderson also was involved in a study that evaluated a video designed to teach Navajo women about breast cancer treatment options. The research involved showing the video to 14 Navajo women diagnosed with breast cancer and documenting their reactions. The women reported reduced anxiety about treatment and interest in cancer support groups immediately after viewing the movie—six months later, some of the women said they sought more information from other sources because of it. Sanderson says that because the video was culturally relevant to the group, it turned out to be an effective teaching tool and 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, masters, and first-year medical students to help with her work, some of whom approach her for her thoughts on additional research topics in American Indian cancer treatment and prevention. Two NAU John and Sophie Otten's Native American undergraduate research scholars will join Sanderson in the field this summer, visiting Native American communities to assist with focus group interviews.

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 communicating those discoveries to the people who need help 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."

To read her recent publications, see references below:
Sanderson, P.R, Teufel-Shone, N., Baldwin, J., Sandoval, N., & Robinson, F. (2010). Breast cancer education for Navajo women: A pilot study evaluating a culturally relevant video. Journal of Cancer Education, 25(2): 217-23.

Sanderson, P.R., Weinstein, N., Teufel-Shone, N., & Martínez, M.E. (2011). Assessing colorectal cancer screening knowledge at tribal fairs. Preventing Chronic Disease Journal, 8(1).