Support group gives a space to heal for Alaska Native cancer survivors

Lex Treinen/Sun Star Reporter
October 9, 2012

Ashley Strauch (center) and Ellen Lopez (far right) have worked together to organize and run a cancer support group held downtown on Monday nights every week. This group is open to cancer survivors, people with a family member with cancer, or people currently struggling with cancer. Oct 1, 2012. Erin McGroarty/ Sun Star

For UAF Junior Ashley Strauch, combining science and philanthropy are part of her undergraduate research.

Strauch and her mentor Dr. Ellen Lopez are currently engaged in a research project that focuses on how Alaska Natives cope with cancer by hosting “Hopeful Connections,” a bi-monthly support group for Alaska Native people affected by cancer that is giving survivors and their loved ones a place to share their cancer experiences. According to the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, cancer is the number one cause of death among Alaska native people. Cancer rates among Alaska Natives are 30 percent higher than among whites according to the ANTHC’s 2010 report.

The project is a partnership between the UAF Center for Alaska Native Health Research and the Fairbanks Native Association.  Lopez and her research assistants conducted interviews with Alaska Native cancer survivors about how they coped with their cancer experiences. She discovered that many survivors wanted a safe place where they could openly talk about their experiences and help others prevent and survive cancer. Lopez and Freda Williams, the Community Services Director for the Fairbanks Native Association, collaborated to create the “Hopeful Connections” support group in the spring of 2012. The group continues to meet twice a month in the Hannah Solomon Building in downtown Fairbanks.

Each support group member comes for a different reason. Some are survivors themselves, some have family members who are going through treatment and some are just there to support family and friends. Strauch has been helping to facilitate the meetings from the group’s creation and she said that since she arrived, the group has evolved from an informal discussion to a place where evidence-based information is presented and discussed, in addition to story sharing.

“We’re at a place where people know each other where we can actually cover some topics,” Strauch. topics include discussing common beliefs about cancer, the importance of subsistence foods for physical and mental health and treatment options.

Attendance has varied. While the group began small it is now stabilizing around a 12-20 participants members. At some meetings the group is so large that not everybody can fit inside the Solomon building.

Though Strauch had previous experience working with Alaska Native people at the Festival of Native Arts working with cancer survivors was entirely new. “As a researcher and at 20 years old I definitely stood out physically,” Strauch said. Nonetheless, Strauch felt like she quickly became part of the group. “Now I think they really enjoy having me there,” Strauch said.

Working with Alaska Native people has taught her about their culture, particularly the importance of respecting elders. She has also had to confront issues as Native people’s views on Western research, which they often see as being exploitative rather than helpful. “We put an emphasis on creating trust and keeping trust,” she said, “We really care about them.”

Aside from sitting in on the meetings, Strauch conducted outside interviews to evaluate the effectiveness of the support group. She is currently analyzing the results and will present them at the Behavioral Sciences Conference of the North in Anchorage next year. Strauch was recently awarded a travel grant for the conference.

Lopez has plenty of experience with cancer survivors and minority groups. Her doctoral research focused on African-American cancer survivors in rural North Carolina. She continued her work with Latino women with physical disabilities. Lopez said that every group, “has a real need to find a purpose for having had cancer. For many it’s to help others.” Lopez said that Native Alaskan people are unique because they place such cultural and spiritual importance on subsistence activities. For some, being able to go berry-picking, fishing and hunting is a way of coping and even a signal to cancer survivors that they are have overcome the struggle, according to Lopez.

Though the group received grant funding, Lopez believes that it can survive without the money, which pays for door prizes and food at the meetings. She is currently looking to expand participation by making call-in and video conferencing possible so that people can be part of the group from the villages. Strauch also hopes that the program can continue and get another undergraduate student to replace her when she finishes her degree at UAF.

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