Bringing Cancer Treatment and Support to the Navajo Nation

At the end of 2017, I was invited to visit the Navajo Nation and tour the Tuba City Regional Health Care Corporation in Tuba City, Arizona. At this particular health care center, a group of dedicated individuals led by CEO Lynette Bonar, a nurse and military veteran, is bringing the first-ever cancer treatment program to the Navajo Nation. This is a significant step forward in righting an inconceivable wrong.

I was shocked to learn last year that no cancer treatment is available on the Navajo Nation, a 27,000 square mile region — larger than the state of West Virginia — that reaches into three states and is home to more than 180,000 people. Here are just a few of the figures that tell the story of the challenges:

Regarding the last statistic about poverty, I also discovered that because of the land trust arrangement with the federal government, Navajos cannot own, buy, or sell land on the reservation, and the local Navajo government cannot impose property taxes on the residents, a major source of income for most state and municipal governments which is often re-invested in infrastructure.

And lastly, my research revealed that there are 521 abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation that were used during World War II and the Cold War and never properly closed — leading to multiple radiation exposure pathways — in the water, in the soil, in the air, and in the vegetation.

In many ways, what I witnessed while visiting the Navajo Nation belies some of the statistics outlined above. I saw hard working people living in remote areas “off the grid” in self-sustaining environments. I met shepherds and herders — and a family that breaks and sells wild horses on their ranch. I met folks who have built a water filtration system on the back of an old school bus that travels from town to town filtering the water, and a collective that is investing in innovative farming techniques to bring healthier food options to people. I met Nellie, age 88, and her sister Sarah, age 83, who tend to their herd of 30 sheep and wander the hills daily to keep the flock healthy and vital. These statistics — these activities — are not captured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and therefore not captured in their calculations.

For a moment I thought — why not just leave? Why not just go someplace where the opportunities are greater, the infrastructure is better and the chance to develop wealth through economic opportunity and home and land ownership exists? The answer became clear to me. This land is sacred to the Navajos. They and their ancestors have lived here for many generations and are connected to the land. In fact, medicine man Hoskie Benally told NPR: “A Navajo’s relationship to the land begins at birth when his or her umbilical cord is buried in the ground. In this way, the newborn makes a symbolic transition from being nourished by their natural mother to a life of nurturing by Mother Earth, the spiritual mother. In addition, the child’s afterbirth is offered to a young pinon or juniper tree, creating a sacred bond the two will share throughout their lives. Thus begins the sacred relationship between a Navajo and the land.”

It is hard to argue with such a deep spiritual bond — and also hard to understand the social injustice of lack of access to cancer treatment for the Navajo people. People on the reservation travel great distances on poor roads with limited support and sometimes no money to put gas in the tank to get to basic cancer care. I heard stories of people simply foregoing treatment because of the enormous logistical barriers that exist to accessing care.

I am amazed and inspired by two oncologists from Maryland, the husband and wife team of Johanna Dimento and Frank Dalichow, who are moving to the Navajo Nation to be the first-ever full-time oncologists there. Of course, there is much to do: money to raise (know anyone who wants a naming opportunity on the side of an old, repurposed building in Tuba City, Arizona?!), staff to hire, the need to set up a specialty oncology pharmacy, and more. And, of course, I am thrilled that we will be bringing a culturally-adapted version of the Cancer Support Community program to the Navajo Nation through the support of a generous grant from the Barbara Bradley Baekgaard Family Foundation. On some days, it seems like a high mountain we are all climbing to make this dream a reality, but I am convinced that we can bridge this gap, bring much-needed cancer care directly to the Navajo people, and right a wrong that seems to have been in the shadows up until now.

If you are inspired to help financially, please visit this GoFundMe page to learn how your contribution will make a difference.

Abandoned uranium mine (left)
Visiting nurses (left), inside the water filtration bus (right)

Executive Chair of the Cancer Support Community