The power to change our lives

We have the power to change our lives for the better. Regardless of whether we have a medical problem such as diabetes, we have the capacity to live a healthy life and to make changes that may be long overdue.

Sadly, many of our people feel helpless or hopeless to change their lives. Some of our people think diabetes and other illnesses are part of their destiny. It is no one’s destiny to have diabetes. As American Indians, we are among one of the highest risk groups for developing diabetes, but this is not the same as being destined or committed to having it. We can change the course of our lives and our futures to avoid this outcome.

You can prove you have the power and ability to change your health and future. Think about the last time you moved from thought to action. You have already healed yourself many times from various ailments in your life. You may already practice preventative behaviors from getting your scheduled vaccinations to prevent disease, to taking vitamins or medicines to maintain good health. Surely you have set and achieved many goals in school, work or in your family. You may have been successful at mobilizing your family or community around a central purpose such as a diabetes walk or health fair.

You may have prayed for a loved one to recover from illness then witnessed their healing. It has been proven that prayers and chants can create physiological changes in the body that facilitate healing. Some of us pray with these phrases: “beauty is before me, beauty is behind me, beauty is above me, beauty is below me, with beauty all around me I walk.” This phrasing can be applied to the science of diabetes.

The molecular science of diabetes, its development, and its actions within the body are exquisite in their design, even beautiful, and sufficiently complex as to baffle the world’s most expert researchers. We live with this science all around us and therefore must remember we have the power to influence this science through our thought, prayer and action.

Our ancestors understood this because they were scientists too – they researched our world and learned how to extract nutrients from plants, animals and the earth’s minerals. Our ancestors studied and learned the interplay of our body’s use of energy, our behaviors, our thoughts and actions. Our elders understood cause and effect, and how to prevent and treat disease. Our elders focused on maintaining health including that of our next generation. Our healers and elders taught a lifestyle that prevented diabetes.

In more ancient times, often referred to as a healthier and more active time, we did not have a perfect life or a perfect culture; and we were not disease free. Life was hard, and for most, it still is. However, we did not have chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer on the scale we now see. We also did not have the severity of depression, anxiety, domestic violence and other social ills that we now contend with – factors which Harvard researchers refer to as “social determinants of health.”

Eliminating and reducing these factors in order to improve health outcomes is a relatively new focus of attention in improving minority health. We can use data and trends found in social determinants of health research to alter the course of our future health status. We can do this by participating in activities that directly or indirectly affect our health such as self-advocacy, education and economic development.

It is a challenge to preserve our culture and traditions while changing our behavior for healthier outcomes, but this challenge is achievable.

The National Diabetes Education Program recently issued a new campaign reinforcing its message of “diabetes is serious yet preventable and controllable.” The new campaign features American Indian family members affected by diabetes who acknowledge “it wasn’t easy but it was worth it.” These attractive and powerful poster messages can be obtained for free by contacting the National Diabetes Education Program online.

Healthy decision making and self-advocacy are brave acts toward better self-care and can be powerful motivators and models for others to follow. The act of caring for oneself can help others quickly learn that they too can take care of themselves. The empowerment of entire families can result; cycles of poverty and alcoholism can finally be broken.

Naturally, it’s not easy to do. There will remain those who rebel at the process but the successful outcomes will speak for themselves. And we must never forget the power of individual and collective prayer to assure our survival and success.

Charlene Avery-Lieb, M.D., is a Navajo physician working in Albuquerque, N.M. Dr. Avery serves as chair of the National Diabetes Education Program American Indian Work Group and is president-elect of the Association of American Indian Physicians.