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Cancer is Leading Cause of Death for Some Native American Groups


American Indians and Alaskan natives are more likely to die from cancer than any other ethnic or racial minority in the United States. VOA's Rosanne Skirble spoke with an American Indian survivor whose diagnosis helped her chart a new course for her life.

Celeste Whitewolf says breast cancer saved her life. "But for my cancer diagnosis I might not be here."

The bad news came in 1998, when Celeste Whitewolf was a lawyer in Portland, Oregon, struggling to keep her law practice going. Faced with a terminal illness, she decided to end her life, then and there. "Thankfully a nurse knew how to help me, besides my body. She knew that my mind was also in need of care."

But Whitewolf had no health insurance or savings. Her only option was to close her law office and return to the Indian reservation where she had spent her early years. As a Native American she could use the Indian Health Care Service.

Mortality rates are higher among American Indians because Native Americans smoke more heavily, don't get regular medical exams, and are diagnosed too late. Whitewolf also blames the poorly-funded Indian Health Care Service. "[That] contributes to our lack of quality of care, lack of access to care and lack of basic services."

The more Whitewolf learned, the more determined she became to help her people. While undergoing cancer therapy she took a part-time job with the Northwest Portland Area Health Board. "I went from an attorney practicing law with a high-tension job to a secretary in a period of about six months. But I'm alive!"

That job set her life on a new course. In 2002, Whitewolf founded "Native People's Circle of Hope," a coalition of cancer survivors and support groups. "We're trying to teach the survivors and their caregivers to be self advocates, to ask the questions."

Whitewolf is also demanding that the big, money-making casino operations on Indian reservations give back more to the community. She also advocates that the tribal governments adopt no smoking in the casinos. "If they are going to continue to allow smoking in their casinos, they should have a tobacco tax and take that tobacco tax and put it into cancer treatment and support their cancer survivors locally."

Circle of Hope has grown to 20 chapters. Whitewolf says with that growth has come greater power to get decision-makers in government and business to help cancer survivors in their day-to-day struggles.

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