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Art and Storytelling in Cancer Education: Native Values Prominent in American Cancer Society Efforts

"Tell me the facts and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever." — Native American proverb ? ?

Storytelling and art are two ways the American Cancer Society and American Indian health leaders are working together to bring lifesaving information on screenings, prevention, and treatment to communities across the nation. By creating these new tools that reflect cultural heritage and values, fewer people will have to hear the words, “You have cancer.” ??American Indian and Alaska Native populations are disproportionally affected by cancer. There are marked regional differences in cancer incidence and mortality rates among American Indians. Studies have clearly demonstrated that the overall survival and mortality rates of cancer in American Indian patients may significantly improve if the cancer is diagnosed at an early stage. Part of the problem may be that information and access to cancer screening and early detection are often limited in many American Indian and Alaska Native communities. When it comes to successfully treating cancer, education, screening and early detection are among a doctor’s best tools.

“With over 500 tribes in the United States—who speak more than 217 different languages—the need for customizable material is very important,” says Tina Russell, director of Community Partnerships at the American Cancer Society. “And, every community is unique.”

That’s why the American Cancer Society (ACS) has teamed up with artists, volunteers and researchers to bring cancer awareness to those who need it most.

During National Heritage Month in November, the ACS wants to thank the volunteers who worked to incorporate traditional values into cancer education and outreach efforts. These efforts include: Circle Of Life; a research project focused on cervical cancer prevention; and a breast cancer awareness DVD.

Circle Of Life

Circle Of Life is cancer education program developed by the American Cancer Society and American Indian and Alaska Native experts from around the country. Circle Of Life resources cover breast, lung, prostate and colon cancers, all cancers seen in native populations. Healthy habits, cancer screening and early detection, diagnosis, treatment. survivorship and end-of-life care are also discussed. The materials can be customized for individual tribes looking for cancer and health information relevant to their community featuring American Indian and Alaska Native photographs and artwork.

The program aims to get the discussion going – and bring cancer out from the shadows. Circle Of Life aims to increase the understanding of cancer and its causes, promote wellness and prevention of cancer, and emphasize the importance of support during and after treatment.

“I’m excited to start presenting the Circle Of Life to my community,” says Shirley Crane, Community Health Representative (CHR) director of the Lower Brule Sioux community in South Dakota. “It’s an opportunity to change the face of cancer, so we don’t have to tell our children they should be afraid of a word called ‘cancer.’”

Research Project

Delf Schmidt-Grimminger, MD, of the University of South Dakota and the Avera Research Institute, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, has explored how culturally tailored messages can improve knowledge and prevention efforts among Northern Plains tribal communities which suffer disproportionately from many cancers.

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He says, “The response from the Cheyenne and other communities in the Dakotas demonstrates the importance of heritage in cancer prevention and cancer screenings. In the future, resources need to reflect cultural expectations and meanings.” His $50,000 American Cancer Society grant supported a community-based research study which included a community advisory board, different focus groups and artist collaborations.

Washington state American Indian artist Chholing Taha created a piece for the research project that depicts cervical cancer prevention. The painting uses symbols showing the prevalence of the cancer in the community and the positive influence of screenings. Using a traditional medium, the artwork preserves a storytelling heritage and, along with it, shares life-saving information on cancer.

Breast Cancer DVD

After skin cancer, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer for women. It will affect nearly 230,000 women in 2012 and nearly one in every eight women during their lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society.

“Breast cancer strikes native women less often than others but it tends to be more deadly for them,” says Rebecca Cowens-Alvarado, director of Cancer Control Mission Strategy at the American Cancer Society. “In many cases, the disease is not diagnosed early due to women not having regular check-ups and mammography." When breast cancer is diagnosed early, treatment can be more effective and women have the greatest chance for cure, according to the ACS. Finding breast cancer early is key.

That’s why the American Cancer Society collaborated with American Indian women to create a breast cancer video in 2009 that continues to motivate women to get their annual screening, with stories from American Indian breast cancer survivors.

Watch the video preview:


The message they have for other women is clear: take charge of your health and get screened.

Mammograms can detect breast cancer before it forms a characteristic lump or spreads to the lymph nodes and other organs. Since the 1960s, five-year survival rates for breast cancer have increased from 63 percent to 90 percent thanks to improvements in early detection and treatment.

If you or someone you know is concerned about paying for a mammogram, the American Cancer Society has resources to help. For resources, information, and 24-hour assistance, call the American Cancer Society at (800) 227-2345 or visit to find a program near you and additional resources. ?

?To order the DVD, call the American Cancer Society at (800) 227-2345. The Title is: Native American Breast Cancer Awareness DVD at Code: 5621.