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Dine College on quest to rename Navajo cancer terms

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  • Robert Schmidt
    http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/health/20071224-1404-wst-renamingcancer. html Dine College on quest to rename Navajo cancer terms By Felicia Fonseca
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 26, 2007

      Dine College on quest to rename Navajo cancer terms

      By Felicia Fonseca

      2:04 p.m. December 24, 2007

      ALBUQUERQUE – Ophelia Black-Spencer must carefully work through layers of
      linguistic and cultural barriers to explain cancer and its affects to her
      fellow Navajo tribal members.

      Black-Spencer, a community health educator at the University of New Mexico,
      introduces herself by name and clan to establish a relationship and earn
      their trust. She speaks both Navajo and English, catering to older and
      younger generations.

      She makes little mention of anatomy, so as not to offend the audience. The
      subject is particularly senstive, because in Navajo belief, to talk about
      disease and death is an invitation to bring the condition upon the people.

      And then there's the issue of how to describe cancer. For decades, Navajos
      have used a word that when translated into English means, “the sore that
      does not heal” – lood doo na'dziihii.

      It's Black-Spencer's biggest barrier and a description she says leads
      Navajos to lose any hope for survival. Officials at Dine College's Shiprock
      campus want to change that.

      “A lot of people have this misconception that it doesn't heal and once you
      have it, it's a death sentence,” said Edward Garrison, a biology and public
      health instructor, who is working on a glossary of cancer terms. “It's very
      unfortunate that some of these translations have become entrenched.”

      The college is halfway through a four-year project funded by the National
      Cancer Institute to rename Navajo cancer terminology.

      In the end, Garrison hopes to make the glossary available as a guide for
      people like Black-Spencer, whose work takes her to Navajo communities where
      she presents information on cancer.

      “It's not easy to go into a community and talk about personal issues, and a
      lot of Navajos don't share illnesses that they're faced with,” she said.
      “It's a very private thing.”

      Garrison said he and a group of people working on the glossary have come up
      with about 100 words so far for various types of cancer, different causes
      of cancer, ways to diagnose and treat it and survival information.

      The Navajo language tends not to borrow words from other languages. When a
      term emerges that Navajos are unfamiliar with, a description is used.

      A computer, for example, is known as “the tool that thinks on its own.”
      “Things are dug out,” describes mining. For diabetes, it's “when your body
      does not use food properly.” The meaning of a cell can vary from “a body
      seed,” “a source of life” or “a strand of a body,” depending on the area of
      the reservation and the dialect.

      “The Navajo language comes in and creates, puts it all into perspective,”
      said Frank Morgan, a consultant on the glossary project. The language “ties
      everything together so that you can see the whole picture.”

      Garrison and his team haven't come up with a phrase to describe cancer, but
      Morgan offers this: “when your source of life begins to grow out of

      In that, he believes that people will understand that cancer can be treated
      if detected early through regular screenings.

      “For each of these words, we have to be very sensitive to the way it will
      affect people,” he said. “We don't want to scare people. ... Out of control
      says that's it growing without direction. The thing there is that it can be
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