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Fighting breast cancer; A Native woman's journal

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Watching bobsledders at the recent Winter Olympics in Turin, I couldn't
help but be reminded of how my return to working life has similarly seemed
to bob from wall to wall while sliding down an icy tunnel with no brakes.

Just short of a year after my diagnosis with breast cancer and days after
my 11-month medical leave ended, I found myself eyes closed -- risking
hypothermia from the January chill -- for a five-minute nap in my 1988
Blazer. Other times I'd lean back in my office chair, eyes closed,
surgery-weary abdomen stretched and reconstructed breast cradled in my

A long illness or injury isn't the end of the journey for someone so
blessed as to return to health. Maintaining health -- in this society,
where health insurance dollars are dwindling faster than a spring snow --
depends more than ever on the individual.

Americans -- not just American Indians -- face a medical funding crisis.

More than 45 million Americans lack health insurance, according to the
Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Among the uninsured, number about 1
million Indians. They don't qualify for IHS care because of geography or
blood quantum.

Others have jobs -- like one Nashville construction worker whose Native
mother wrote some months ago that he was suffering from stomach cancer --
that don't offer insurance.

Most uninsured Americans are working stiffs. Most have low-wage jobs that
don't offer health insurance or give them too few hours to qualify for
coverage. Others are part of the growing professional class of Indian
consultants, which tribes and other Indian employers prefer over permanent
hires who they have to give health insurance.

Into this context goes President George W. Bush's proposal to eliminate the
$33 million that funds the 33 urban Indian health clinics in the cities of
Indian country.

The last president to slash urban Indian health funding was Ronald Reagan.
Ten cities with Native communities lost clinics, said Ralph Forquera,
executive director of the Seattle Indian Health Board.

While Bush's plan will be fought by Indian leaders, and hopefully
individuals like us, all the way to Congress, the mainstay of IHS programs
in reservation communities remain woefully underfunded, said Jim Roberts,
policy analyst at the Northwest Indian Health Board in Portland.

The IHS operates on about $3 billion a year, but full funding for the
federal agency responsible for most of our health is about $8 to $9
million, Roberts said.

I'm not one to back away from a fight. But with medical care that
uncertain, I say we've got to take care of ourselves as much as possible.

The first line of my defense is my relationship with my own body.

Dr. Bernie Siegel, a Connecticut-based retired cancer surgeon, wrote in the
1986 book "Love, Medicine and Miracles" that medicine -- and, in our time,
health insurance -- primarily exists to keep us alive until we find our
individual path to healing our minds and bodies. Siegel, a medical doctor,
would never say to forgo conventional treatments that studies have shown to

I sometimes wish I could go the next 70 years M.D.-free.

Even if I can't avoid doctors forever, last summer I cut myself loose of
them for six weeks and stayed out of even cell phone range at my lake
cabin, a 350-mile drive from Portland.

While there, I mined a used book store in Coeur D'Alene for Joseph Campbell
books. Campbell, who when I was a kid did a famous series of interviews
with Bill Moyers on public television, was a white professor and writer of
philosophy whose work was inspired by Native traditions. I flipped the
pages of his books and skimmed the words, looking at pictures and
recovering the power of story.

We all begin our cellular journey with story.

Pick any creation story of choice. Genesis; your tribe's creation story;
your family's tale about "my dad was crazy in love with my mom" -- what are
these except stories? Story, I suspect, is the power that holds up the
universe. If story, according to every human culture, made this planet,
than what role does it have in my body's cells?

Medical researchers have long said that cancer cells are simply cells that
have lost their original purpose. They've lost their story.

If my breast cells have lost their story, then what can I do better than
give it back to them? Or as one woman in a breast cancer support group said
recently to my theory, how can my cells get their groove back?

The challenge became clear in the weeks after I returned to my work-a-day
life and lost the hours each day that medical leave had allowed me to care
for myself. I found that by praying, meditating and concentrating for even
a few minutes, I could help the reconstruction which has in my mind become
my breast to heal.

Part of my practice is the idea of laying on hands. I let the heat from my
hand melt into my breast and other parts of my body that hurt or may have
long-term side effects from the cancer treatments. From my soul I give the
body story -- sometimes in imagery and other times in words -- of what
would be most healthful for it to do.

Sometimes I feel a pulse from my surgery scars, which one physical
therapist told me is my scars communicating, telling me their troubles so
they can relax and heal. I hold that spot until the pulse fades, and the
story told without words ends. The healing begins.

Can story help heal a sick heart, build an immune system, ease a troubled

You'll have to find an answer in your own story.

Kara Briggs is a Yakama journalist from Portland, Ore., where she works for
The Oregonian. She chronicles her recovery from breast cancer in this
biweekly series. She is a former president of the Native American
Journalists Association and winner of the 2004 Award for Investigative
Journalism. Contact her by e-mail at