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OU 'Native Navigators' Program Targets Cancer Prevention Among American Indians

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The Comanche Nation is teaming up with the University of Oklahoma College of Nursing to evaluate whether tribal members trained as health educators can assist with cancer prevention, screening and treatment—and if that can encourage more American Indians to get screenings and make healthy lifestyle changes.

The Native Navigators program aims to increase knowledge about cancer and motivate people to achieve health goals, thus reducing cancer-related deaths, in the Comanche community surrounding Lawton in southern Oklahoma. The research also will evaluate whether age, education and family income influence knowledge about cancer.

Valerie Eschiti, an assistant professor of nursing at the OU College of Nursing, is the principal investigator of the federally funded project.

Eschiti said American Indians in the Southern Plains have a higher incidence and higher mortality rates for some types of cancer when compared to other racial and ethnic groups, as well as Indians living in other parts of the country. Poverty, lack of education about cancer and difficulty accessing health care may factor into this disparity.

Two Comanche Nation members, Stacey Sanford and Leslie Weryackwe, have been trained by Eschiti and other faculty as Native Navigators and now are leading educational workshops throughout the Lawton area.

Sanford, a licensed practical nurse, said she was attracted to the project because she’s seen how members can influence each other more effectively than outsiders.

“Our native people are more comfortable hearing from other natives,” she said. “It’s a cultural thing.”

Weryackwe agrees.

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“There is so much caring and love in our people,” Weryackwe said. “We’re all family, and we just want to help each other.”

The two said they are already seeing signs of positive change with participants asking how to eat better and how to take other steps to ward off disease.

“Cancer is a word that a lot of Native Americans get scared of,” Sanford said. “But now they want to learn more about how to prevent it.”

In addition, the program will evaluate the impact of support by Native Navigators on cancer care. For instance, if someone has a finding that may point to cancer or is actually diagnosed with cancer, a Native Navigator helps guide that person through treatment, follow-up and even end-of-life care.

“They guide patients through and around barriers in the complex cancer care system to help ensure timely diagnosis and treatment,” Eschiti said, adding that similar programs in other parts of the country have shown an increase in screening for certain cancers.

The program is funded by a $363,563 grant from the National Institute of Nursing Research at the National Institutes for Health. Denver-based Native American Cancer Research also is a partner in the project.

“Research and outreach are an integral part of our mission at the OU College of Nursing,” said Dean Lazelle Benefield, Ph.D., R.N. and Fellow, American Academy of Nursing. “Reducing health disparities and helping underserved populations is of vital importance. This project highlights the critical contributions nursing professionals are making to health care across the state and nation.”

This year, the OU College of Nursing marks its 100th year of teaching excellence. Based in Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Lawton with additional outreach sites in Ada, Ardmore, Duncan, Enid, Woodward, Grove, Hugo, McAlester, Poteau and Talihina, the college boasts 9,500 graduates in all 50 states and 10 countries. A leader in nursing education, the OU College of Nursing is also committed to advancing faculty research that leads to new discoveries and avenues for improved health.