SHIPROCK — A 12-minute DVD is changing the way Navajo women think about breast cancer.

The DVD, produced by a team of local cancer professionals and survivors, is helping Navajo women view cancer in manageable terms.

The Navajo term for cancer, lóód doo nádziihii, means "the sore that does not heal." That's not the message Fran Robinson, cancer navigator at San Juan Regional Cancer Center, wants women to hear when they are diagnosed with breast cancer.

"We need them to understand the diagnosis, to know that there is appropriate treatment and that it can be healed," Robinson said. "We need to change the sore that never heals' to a growth that can be healed.'"

Robinson, armed with the DVD and accompanied by Nellie Sandoval, a 23-year breast cancer survivor, has inundated more than 200 clinics, service units and chapter houses to change how Navajos think about cancer.

At the root of the effort is a change to the language itself. The DVD strives to inform Navajo women about breast cancer in their own language and in a culturally sensitive manner.

"We thought it was important to share the information in one's own language," Robinson said. "If they heard it in their own language, we thought they would be more likely to get screened and they would be more likely to follow up on recommended treatment in a timely manner."

The need for a change was there.


Breast cancer is one of the leading causes of death among American Indian women.

Although cancer rates among American Indians are lower than in the Anglo population, more American Indians die of the disease than their Anglo counterparts, mostly because American Indians wait longer to seek diagnosis and they more often discontinue treatment.

Many of these issues can be tied to a misunderstanding of the disease, Robinson said.

"Hearing something in one's own language cuts out the misunderstanding," she said. "Language (nuances) can be so small but lead to huge misunderstandings."

Robinson solicited help from Margaret Lee, a health promotion specialist at Northern Navajo Medical Center who acted as interpreter for the DVD, which is in Navajo with English subtitles.

"Initially we saw a lot of fear," Lee said. "They didn't want to go for a mammogram. They didn't even want to hear about it, to say the words, because that was wishing the evil upon us."

The first DVD, produced in 1998, started a tidal wave of change. A second DVD came out in 2004 and a third several years later. All come with the message that cancer can be healed.

Researchers met at the Shiprock Chapter House on Monday to discuss the results of a study of the DVD published last year.

Researchers from Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona collaborated to evaluate 14 Navajo women diagnosed with breast cancer and their responses to the DVD, which features American Indian women talking about their own experiences with cancer.

"Initially, the women watching the film didn't want to talk about these things," Lee said. "When they saw other Navajo women talking about their experiences, they were more willing to go get treatment."

The study found that the DVD improved communication between medical providers and patients and helped empower women, said Priscilla Sanderson, a professor at Northern Arizona University.

Researchers also documented responses from 26 health care providers, who said the film helped them communicate with patients.

"We wanted to provide accurate information and reduce fear," Robinson said. "We hope this information saves lives."