Fighting cancer in American Indians

Project partners include, left to right (RCCHC denotes Red Cliff Community Health Center)

Laura Stephenson (Wisconsin Cancer
Reporting System);   Erin Tenney, CNM, WHNP (RCCHC)*Patty Jo Wygonik (RCCHC); *Carolyn Maunu, CHR (RCCHC); *Lawrence
Deragon Sr.
(RCCHC); Jenelle Elza, RN (RCCHC); *Patricia Deragon-Navarro (RCCHC); *Carolyn Gouge (RCCHC); Lance Whitehair, MD (Center for American Indian Minority Health, University of Minnesota-Duluth; Navajo Nation); Jennifer Boulley (RCCHC, Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa); *Inez (Midge) Montano (Domestic Violence Prevention Advocate); Rick Wygonik (Red Cliff Community Member); Samantha Lucas (Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Epidemiology Center); Elaine Drew, PhD (Medical College of Wisconsin); Nancy Freeman (Wisconsin Comprehensive Cancer Control Program and Wisconsin Cancer Council); and*Frank Montano.

*Indicates member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

Throughout Wisconsin, the Medical College of Wisconsin is building partnerships with local communities to  identify and address the most critical health needs of people. The Medical College’s Advancing a Healthier Wisconsin endowment, which includes the Healthier Wisconsin Partnership Program, is dedicated to improving the health of Wisconsin residents. Advancing a Healthier Wisconsin has awarded funding to more than 295 projects focusing on health promotion and disease prevention in Wisconsin communities.

The land of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians is nestled along the scenic shores of Lake Superior in northern Wisconsin. There a unique partnership, funded by the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Healthier Wisconsin Partnership Program, is working to build the capacity of Wisconsin’s American Indian communities to improve cancer prevention and the health and quality of life of cancer patients and survivors.

Cancer is the second leading cause of death among American Indians over the age of 45. Moreover, American Indians continue to have one of the poorest survival rates from all cancers combined.

A major barrier to better cancer care and prevention among American Indians stems from inaccurate and incomplete reporting of the incidence, treatments and outcomes of cancer among Indians. Wisconsin’s tribal health clinics are primary care facilities that refer patients with suspected cancer to specialty treatment facilities elsewhere. Several Wisconsin studies have documented that reporting systems routinely misclassify American Indians, and diagnostic and treatment information are often not reported back to the tribal clinics. Based on these findings, the Red Cliff community expressed interest in improving cancer reporting as a means to identifying specific tribal needs for cancer prevention and care.     

 “When local communities have the data, then action is taken to address those needs. For example, our community health nurse is getting calls from cancer patients we didn't know about, and we may not have the right support services in place for them,” said Patricia Deragon-Navarro, Health Administrator, Red Cliff Community Health Center.   

This project has three key aims:  to assess the Red Cliff community’s knowledge and communications about cancer; to develop an accurate, reciprocal reporting process for the Red Cliff health clinic and the Wisconsin Cancer Reporting System; and to train local staff to implement the reporting process.  

“Through this project, we hope to empower tribal communities to accurately identify which cancers impact their community the most, how many new cases of specific cancers they might see per year, and track how those numbers are changing over time. Tribes need such data to promote the best screening and treatment measures,” said Patricia Deragon-Navarro.  

“Tribal members are participants and decision makers in every step of this project. Our goal is to develop a strong and sustainable partnership that will benefit American Indian communities in Wisconsin,” said Elaine Drew, PhD.  Dr. Drew and J. Frank Wilson, MD, are project partners from the Medical College of Wisconsin.  

Project partners include the Red Cliff Community Health Center; the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Epidemiology Center; the Wisconsin Cancer Reporting System; the Spirit of Eagles, University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center; the Wisconsin Cancer Council, and the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Dr. Wilson is Chairman and Bernard & Miriam Peck Family Professor in Radiation Oncology. Dr. Drew is Assistant Professor of Family and Community Medicine.

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