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Gila River Community raises awareness with cancer survivor group

SACATON, Ariz. - "Cancer is survivable" is the message the Gila River people of Arizona are working to get out into their community. "Whether it is one year, two years or 20, you are still alive and you can make a better life for yourself. We just want to do the best job of living we can."

Pattie King hesitates to accept any glory for the job she is doing at the Gila River CARES project, which stands for Cancer Advocacy Resource Education Support, but her role in her community has inspired others around her who are leading the way in bringing cancer awareness to others at the grassroots level. Speaking to King you get the sense that life is hopeful and that Indians going through the cancer journey have an experience that can be shared.

In 1999 when her mother Patricia was diagnosed with myeloma she began to understand that "cancer is never about one person." Especially in Native communities where family is extended to include aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and friends of friends, it is vitally important to include these people in the cancer process. In her work at the Huhukam Memorial Hospital in Sacaton, King's role is, in part, to navigate community members through the cancer experience. She is quick to state that the medical staff was "doing a good job of referring to oncology services" but explained, "There was little awareness to provide for community support."

King and her mother traveled off the reservation when treatment began approximately two months after initial diagnosis. Although the oncology clinic was located in a neighboring community, the travel to and from the clinic was stressful. Sitting in the clinic lobby the two met others from their community and found it easiest to talk to them about their struggles. Not wanting to diminish what non-Indians go through, as cancer is difficult for everyone, King explained that cultural oneness can assist persons in finding support. She understands when a man or woman would say, "I just couldn't get out to chop wood to make tortillas today" because it is an experience she can identify with and one that explains the difficulty of adjusting and changing your life because of the cancer diagnosis.

Because the family is such an important component of Indian life, cancer affects Native communities in a different way. When a grandmother who normally cares for the children is unable to do so because of illness, or misses a treatment because of her home responsibilities, everyone in the family experiences the struggle. Soon King and others realized that they needed a cancer survivor support network within the community. So they formed a support group where people could share individual experiences without outside judgment from others foreign to the Native experience. Understanding the economic environment within the community can also play a role in cancer support, treatment and recovery. For instance when others shared with King the difficulty of traveling to the clinic for lack of transportation the situation was understood without question.

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On June 1, 2000 the first Gila River Cancer Survivorship meeting was held at the Community Center in District 3. In attendance were four female cancer survivors and the teenage daughter of one. They met monthly and eventually moved the meetings to District 4 to create a more convenient meeting site for distant commuters. At every opportunity King would announce the meetings, first at the Elders Concerns meeting and then at various community events. As members of the community were diagnosed, word spread that a support group was now available, not in a distant location, but central to everyone. "It was actually the community members themselves who got the word out through meeting and church gatherings," King said.

Today, the expanded group has found sharing their experience in their own words, within their own cultural exchange, creates a more positive cancer journey. The group allows everyone to minimize the risk of opening up to strangers. However, for those who cannot come to the meetings because of physical limitations, or because they are timid about sharing in group settings, many members have gone into homes for one-on-one sessions.

Presently, support group members are working hard fund-raising for a trip to Hawaii to meet with Hawaiian Natives to exchange cancer stories. King and others hope that when the two groups meet they will be able to enhance their own cancer journey by finding out how others deal with the situation. They hope to identify common struggles, obstacles, challenges, support strategies, education resources, and possibly become even more open about their experiences. Hawaiian Natives have a cultural tradition of "Talking Story" and are using it as a process to explore the cancer journey. King explained, "We are hoping that meeting with the Hawaiians will give us a forum to share openly with each other." She further stated, "Everyone's experience is a story. No matter what background, we all have a story to share. Through this sharing we receive the affirmation that we become stronger individually and as a people.

Currently 25 cancer survivor group members are signed up for the trip to Hawaii. They are raising funds for the trip by selling items at yard sales and food sales. King laughed, "We will sell anything. Whatever it takes we will do it to be able to share this experience." But it is a long process to raise the money needed by February of 2004."

Western Regional Community Clinical Oncology Program, a National Cancer Institute non-profit organization committed to cancer clinical trials is helping to raise awareness of the cause and promote funding. For more information on making a donation, call (602) 239-3814 or e-mail