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From cancer survivor to advocate

SACATON, Ariz. - When Inez Satala started showing the first symptoms of uterine cancer she ignored them. This wasn't a good time in her life to be ill. Her sister Geraldine Hayes, had just been diagnosed with leukemia. Instead Satala concentrated on the turmoil her sister was experiencing. Sharing her symptoms with family they agreed it was just stress. She decided to deal with her sister's situation and thought that there would be time for her own health later. When her sister died, the death was a shock. "When she passed on it happened so fast, within a couple of weeks," Satala said. Mourning the loss was difficult and she became fatigued and decided to see a doctor. But once again the family was struck by grief. Satala's brother was killed in a car accident. "Within two weeks I had lost Geraldine and then my brother."

She again delayed going to the doctor.

Satala was somewhat aware of the symptoms of uterine cancer described by the National Cancer Institute including unusual bleeding or discharge, difficulty or painful urination, pain in the pelvic area or during intercourse. But her main complaint was intense fatigue. When symptoms increased, however, she called for an appointment at the Huhukam Medical Center.

Immediately, upon examination, the doctor ordered a biopsy that came back positive for cancer. Within a few short weeks Satala had lost a sister to leukemia, a brother in a car accident, and was now facing uterine cancer.

Because the medical center does not have a cancer treatment facility she was referred to a local hospital. According to Satala, her doctors were very knowledgeable and courteous at all times. Even today she remembers vividly how concerned they were to find her the best possible treatment. When James Freel, MD broke the news to her about the cancer, he said, "Now we will have to see how strong of a woman you are."

Her initial reaction was to tell her daughters about the diagnosis, first to warn them, but secondly, to ask for their strength and support. She accepted the illness easily, "Whatever God wants, that's what will be." She began to go through the motions of readying herself. Upon the urging of others she made out her will and prepared for the unknown.

She found the radiation and chemotherapy treatments were very tiring. While recuperating she would lie in bed wondering about her future. Satala smiles remembering her young grandson, Xavier, who would burst through her bedroom doors shouting, in English and Pima, "Grandma, SHAP-KIG! (Hello) SHAP-KIG!" This gave her strength and determination. She knew that her family needed her to live and pass on tradition, pass on language, and pass on faith. "No," she said, "I'm going to get out of this bed. I am going to overcome. I am going to survive. I want to see my grandson grow up." At this, she began to pray. Satala believes that her cancer journey was made easier because of her strong faith. "That was the time that I grew really close to God," she said.

At every step, she was determined to be strong for her family, but treatments left her weak. She started walking around the house, first just a few steps were all she could manage. Eventually, she walked completely around the house. Step-by-step, she moved to get strong. Chemotherapy was an overwhelming slow process. The cancer treatments made Satala very nauseous and she felt like a "zombie." She had a porta cath (used to deliver the medicine to cancer patients) attached to her body for over a year. During Satala's recovery her daughter took leave from work at the casino, to drive her back and forth to therapies, 50 miles away from home each day.

Her family dealt with the cancer as best they could. She once cared for the grandchildren but her family asked her to stop until her health was back to normal. Satala admits that discussing cancer is not always easy for family or for the patient. One of her brothers distanced himself from Satala after the cancer diagnosis. She believes that he did not know how to speak to her and was concerned that he may "say the wrong thing." She understood his pain but hopes that by sharing her story others might understand the importance of communication of togetherness during such a time.

Searching for help, Satala met Lila Jean Pasqual, a woman who changed her life by informing her other cancer survivors were meeting right in Sacaton, sharing the cancer journey together. Pasqual, a woman who laughed easily and brought comfort and support to others, extended a hand of friendship and invited Satala to join the Gila River Cancer Survivor Group. Pasqual herself has since passed from cancer but Satala continues to meet with the group of men and women, believing that having a place to talk and share during a time of crisis is important.

Now Satala is helping others as a recruiter at Gila River for the National Institute of Health, Look Ahead Diabetes Study. When Satala was first diagnosed with cancer she was unfamiliar with clinical trials, but now because of her work, she understands they can be crucial when facing a life-threatening disease. When asked if she would seek a clinical trial for cancer treatment today she responded, "Oh yes, I wish they had one available for me when I was diagnosed." She hopes this article will enable Indians everywhere to make better health choices, respond more quickly to disease symptoms and become actively involved in their own care.

Private health insurance and ACCESS, an Arizona medical program available to low-income residents, gave her the ability to move through the health care process very quickly. She urges all Indians diagnosed with disease of any kind to check into alternative government run health care plans, "They paid for everything," she said. To contact Gila River Cancer Advocate, Pattie King, call (520) 562-3321. For more information on cancer clinical trials, call (602) 239-3814.