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Fighting cancer with the Navajo language

By Daniel Kraker

Flagstaff, AZ – Native Americans have one of the lowest cancer rates in the country. But when they do get the disease, Native people have the lowest survival rate of any minority group. Now, a group of linguists and public health professionals on the Navajo Nation is working to change that.

Edward Garrison, a public health researcher at Dine College, says the general consensus is "That Native Americans don't understand the importance of early detection and screening."

Garrison thinks part of the reason for that has to do with language. Cancer was originally translated in Navajo as "a sore that does not heal."

"Another one was a sore that becomes rotten," says Martha Garrison, Ed's wife, a full blooded Navajo, and a linguist.

"All those became to us was negative terms," she says. "When the people heard this term, they would say I have no more life, it's just best to die, that's what they would say about cancer."

So for the past several years, the Garrisons have helped devise more medically accurate and culturally appropriate translations for cancer related terms. They've published a cancer glossary the first in a Native language and given workshops to health care providers across the reservation. Now they've teamed up with the Susan G. Komen Foundation for the Cure to translate a Breast Cancer self exam shower card.

Ed Garrison says they've been told repeatedly that "Navajos want to think pictorially, graphically, it needs to be described to them as a picture, so they can understand visually what it means "

They're now applying that to their newest project, a card encouraging Navajo women to get mammograms.