When Kara Briggs first suggested a column based on her own personal bout
with breast cancer, we considered it a most courageous offer. Kara is a
good friend and colleague of many years, always one of those quiet, wise
voices behind the scenes at places like the Native American Journalists
Association and other Native gatherings.
Kara is also an accomplished writer, a Yakama journalist from Portland,
Ore., where she is currently on medical leave from her job at The
Oregonian. She is a former president of NAJA and winner of the 2004 Richard
LaCourse Award for Investigative Journalism.
On Jan. 7, she was "diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer."
Suddenly a large-as-all-life reality loomed over her existence, joining her
voice to a new cause. She began to write, to explore the truth and reality
of the plague of the 20th century, now inherited by too many, with too few
Not much has been generally known about Native peoples and cancer, but that
situation is changing. With seven columns published so far, Kara has
broached a commendable range of topics and themes in a highly personal work
which introduces accurate scientific and cultural information interwoven
with the pattern and telling detail of her own life, her ups and downs as
an occasional patient and recipient of nauseating chemo treatments forced
to wonder through the pain.
We take a moment thus to appreciate the consciousness, commitment and
discipline exhibited by journalist and writer Kara Briggs, who has touched
and deeply educated us and our appreciative audience on the scourge of
cancer in Indian country.
Kara asks the often-disregarded question of why the Western world is being
pursued by what can be accurately described as a cancer pandemic. "Is
cancer the new smallpox?" Answer: It's a super-disease of some "400 related
diseases that will maim or kill 1 in 2 American men and 1 in 3 American
women." According to Briggs' research, "Indians have the lowest five-year
survival rates in the nation."
Probably the major lesson, gained through courage in Kara's case, is to
face the circumstance head-on. For example, she shared the advice of a
"Paiute friend [who] said that we must become active participants, not
passive recipients of medical care." Using prayer, herbal cleansing and
traditional healing, as well as the treatments of Western medical science,
reaching deep for courage and resolve seemed the most important medicine.
Chemotherapy, to which she submits for treatment, is "Western medicine's
best-known method of shrinking cancer tumors. [It] ... floods the body with
chemicals that attack fast dividing cells," like cancer cells. It's a tough
treatment; hair follicles and gastrointestinal membranes also divide fast.
Hair loss, mouth sores and hemorrhoids are common side effects. On a
personal level, chemo is like ingesting "a little death, intending to wipe
out the cancer that covertly invaded my right breast."
Nevertheless, she wonders sincerely how much worse it must be for people
living in severe poverty, "for those dependent on the Indian Health
Service's limited budgets and for people who can't or don't speak for
themselves." She tries to imagine cancer survivors in remote communities
shaken by driving as much as 100 miles to and from chemo, "when I can
barely stand the car sickness for the 15-minute drive to my house."
Why is she in chemotherapy? As her specialist tells her, "Because it's
working." The tumor, Briggs reports, is "shriveling up and being replaced
by soft, healthy breast tissue."
Briggs writes elegantly yet directly, with a touch of literary class. On
the social dynamic among individuals that occurs in places of health and
recovery, hospitals and clinics, she writes, "We sit facing each other, a
community of strangers who share the intimate desire to live."
She discusses the honest mistakes of doctors who leave patients regrettably
dead, and the more dishonest and unethical doctors wanting to test-drive
their new techniques, regardless of reasonable expectations. Contradictory,
sometimes ignorant advice on headaches and other problems associated with
chemotherapy drugs that various hospital staff may pass on are legendary
complaints of patients. Briggs goes beyond complaint.
After a hard time cutting through medical red tape, her courage and
resourcefulness (and perhaps her journalistic training) result in a
one-patient health activist campaign. "I bought a fax machine and began
faxing my doctor memos describing my symptoms, my questions and even my
complaints about the staff," she wrote. "A friend who is a doctor told me
that memos, even handwritten ones that are carried into the office, are a
good way for patients to document their needs." Good advice: her proactive
involvement resulted in more attentive and intelligent treatment.
Briggs reminds us that getting meaningful statistics on Native cancer rates
is difficult. Apart from the large percentage of misidentified Native
people in the national census, "cancer varies geographically among tribal
communities, whose members have different gene pools, different eating
habits and different exposures to environmental pollutants." Smoking is a
big factor, for instance, in northern Great Plains tribes, where nearly 50
percent of adults smoke cigarettes and have a four times higher rate of the
disease than among the Southwestern tribes, where smoking is less
For Kara's people, a shared geography with a major radioactive polluter,
the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, is an added factor for increased cancer
rates. Indian populations from seven reservations are among those known as
"Hanford's 'down-winders,'" referring to people who were exposed to
airborne radioactive iodine released while plutonium was made for bombs
from 1945 - 1972 at the military facility. Navajos and other southwestern
Indian people who lived or worked within the nuclear fuel cycle also
evidence higher levels of cancer.
There is a lot of information, and a lot of life, in Kara Briggs' columns.
The good news is in Kara's courageous confrontation of the assault on her
health. A keen reporter, optimistic and inspirational, she points out new
treatments based in recently developed technology that can "pinpoint tumors
with high doses of radiation that kill the cancer, but unlike conventional
radiation therapy leave the surrounding healthy organs alone." Faster, much
less destructive treatment is around the corner.
Truthful, good writing always propels a self-discovery that can prove
transformative. The prize of courage is revelation, which is, as Kara
Briggs wrote, "a beauty that is beyond cancer."