Breaking Barriers to Better Native American Health


Most Native American languages don't have a precise word for "cancer." When an entire population doesn't know what to call the disease, translating the symptoms and communicating preventative measures becomes next to impossible.

Priscilla Sanderson, a Navajo assistant professor of health sciences and applied indigenous studies, is researching ways to improve such communications through her work at Northern Arizona University and her involvement in the Partnership for Native American Cancer Prevention.

Working with the Hopi Nation, Sanderson is currently discovering which channels of communication work best to communicate valuable information about the disease. 

"At this point we don't have a cohesive, integrated resource that provides all these types of information," she says. "We need a way to help patients and family members navigate treatment options in their first language, whether it's Navajo or English."

As part of her research, Sanderson contributed to a study that evaluated a video designed to teach Navajo women about breast cancer treatment options. The research involved showing the video to Navajo women diagnosed with breast cancer and documenting their reactions.

Immediately after viewing the video, the women reported reduced anxiety about treatment and interest in cancer support groups. Six months later, some of the women said they sought more information from additional sources because of their new understanding. Sanderson says because the video was culturally relevant to the group, it turned out to be an effective teaching tool and enhanced communication between the patients and their health care providers.

"I look at the attitudes and beliefs that Native people have, related to cancer—from there we can design our educational module to that population, age level, and gender," Sanderson says.

As she continues to tap into the knowledge, attitudes and belief systems related to cancer, Sanderson works, ultimately, to help create a better quality of life for Native American—and she isn’t doing it alone.

Sanderson has recruited undergraduate, master’s and first-year medical students to help with her work, some of whom approach her for her thoughts on additional research topics in American Indian cancer treatment and prevention. Two Northern Arizona University undergraduate research scholars joined Sanderson in the field, visiting Native American communities to assist with focus group interviews.

With the help of her students, Sanderson strives to link fast-moving laboratory discoveries with in-need people on American Indian Reservations.

"We need to have these two disciplines work closely together," Sanderson says. "That's what I'm hoping I will be able to contribute."

Sanderson's plans to continue helping more Native Americans understand the seriousness of annual check-ups, cancer screenings, and using available resources—so they can make informed health care decisions. 

Sanderson’s recent research publications 

Breast cancer education for Navajo women: A pilot study evaluating a culturally relevant video 

Assessing colorectal cancer screening knowledge at tribal fairs 

Funding undergraduate research 

The John and Sophie Otten's Foundation—committed to improving the health of American Indians in the Four Corners states—made it possible for two Northern Arizona University undergraduate students to work alongside Professor Sanderson in this pioneering research.