Funding the future

Tony Ward, Monica Yellowhair and Amanda Tachine
Tony Ward, Monica Yellowhair and Amanda Tachine

According to the Centers for Disease Control, specifically unique circumstances of culture, location, history and health care produce unique patterns of cancer occurrence among Native Americans.

Former Tohono O’odham Nation chairman Vivian Juan-Saunders witnessed this firsthand. She saw countless members of her tribe succumb to the ravages of this disease. As a result, she wrote a letter to University of Arizona Cancer Center Director David Alberts, MD.

Her message was simple: “We need your help.”

This was a major moment in that tribe’s fight against the disease. Traditionally, Native Americans are reluctant to make their feelings known on this issue.

“Many tribal elders won’t even speak about it,” said research administrator Jennifer Prissel. “They believe if you talk about cancer, then you’ll end up getting cancer. Many Native Americans believe that if you put an idea out there, it will come back around and haunt you. It’s our goal to educate on the prevention, screening and treatment of all cancers.”

The Partnership for Native American Cancer Prevention (NACP) was established in 2001 to help alleviate the unequal burden of cancer among Native Americans of the Southwest through research, training and outreach programs.

This collaboration between the UACC, Northern Arizona University, and the National Cancer Institute primarily develops sustainable community education programs and research for cancer prevention that meet the unique needs of the Hopi Tribe and the Navajo and Tohono O’odham Nations.

In addition, it aims to strengthen the level of education and treatment opportunities available to tribal members, as well as develop programs that facilitate the successful transition of Native American students into these research areas.

In any given school year, roughly 100 Native American students take part in this program. Some are hoping to become biomedical research scientists, while others are studying to become social workers or behavioral scientists. Through this collaborative effort, these students are able to return to their tribes and establish proper prevention, screening and/or treatment techniques.

The positive affects of that collaboration works both ways, as well.
“When I first started working here [in 2006], the relationship between us and the tribal members was a work in progress,” Prissel said. “They treat us like family now. They don’t even have to call us because they know that we’re there, ready to help at a moment’s notice.”

The NACP is one of only a handful of U54 grants currently receiving funding from the National Cancer Institute. U54 grants fund cooperative, interrelated research programs that focus on specific problems or themes. This current five-year renewal — which began in 2009 — will bring in a total of $15 million to the program through 2014.

However, there are still dozens of practical concerns — transportation and education among them — that fall outside of the funding parameters. That’s where generosity and altruism come in.

In December 2011, Marilyn Lobell donated $100,000 to the UACC, which she asked to be used for disparities among Native Americans.

“Each year, anywhere between three and six students hoping to earn their master’s or PhD come to us and ask for help,” Prissel said. “These are brilliant students who are often at the end of their rope financially. Donations like this make it possible for us to establish scholarships to help students in these situations finish their education.”

Lobell’s late husband, Michael, was among the UACC’s most influential researchers on this subject. He was key in establishing the foundation for these tribal relationships.

“Donations like this could change the lives of dozens of kids, which could change the future of an entire tribe or nation,” Prissel said.

-Nick Prevenas, Feb. 6, 2012