The Powwow for Hope

By Arne Vainio, M.D.
News From Indian Country

We were at the Powwow for Hope this weekend in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This is a fundraiser and brings awareness of cancer screening, prevention and support to Native American communities. This was the second annual and there was a big crowd of people there.

Cancer is a major concern in Native communities. Our rate of smoking is high and our rate of diabetes is high. There is a well known link between multiple forms of cancer and smoking, but there is also a higher rate of some types of cancer in those with diabetes, although the link is less well understood and may be due to the fact they share some of the same risk factors.

What is cancer?

Before we are born, an egg and a sperm come together to form a single cell. That cell divides into 2, then 4, then 8, then 16, then 32, then 64 and on and on. Initially this is a blob of cells, but at some point differentiation occurs. This means that some cells are programmed to become brain cells, some will become eye cells, some will become pancreatic cells, colon cells, finger muscle cells, skin cells and all the other cells in our bodies. They stop dividing when whatever they are forming is complete.  We have one liver, 2 lungs, 10 fingers, 10 toes and no one knows exactly when and how that differentiation is decided.

As we age, our cells divide as they get old and wear out, but they are never quite the same as the original cell. During our lifetimes, damage occurs to our cells and this likely happens all the time, but our bodies can repair the damage.

But sometimes, we can’t fix it. A single cell from an organ like the colon, lung, breast, skin, prostate cervix or other primary place loses the control that originally stopped it from growing and it divides into two cells.

Then 4, then 8, then 16, then 32, 64 and so on.

Cells are small. A teaspoon holds about 25 million red blood cells. Other cells won’t be exactly the same size, but they’re on that order. As cancers grow, they can eventually erode into a blood vessel or a lymphatic vessel and then they’re on the freeway. A piece of the tumor can break off and travel far from where it originally started. They can also spread directly into a nearby organ, tissue or into bone. The spreading process is called metastasis. A cancer that has spread is called metastatic and it displaces and kills normal cells.

Cancers that have grown or spread can oftentimes be treated or surgically removed, but the best way to fight them is to prevent them and to reduce our risks for getting them in the first place. This means stopping smoking, living a healthier lifestyle, staying active, eating a diet high in fiber, fruits and vegetables and avoiding processed foods.  Fresh foods are higher in antioxidants and those can help prevent cancers.

Any screening test means that the test is done on healthy people to try to pick up a problem before it gets worse. Screening needs to be done early and it needs to look for a problem that is common enough to make a difference and screening has to be done for conditions that are treatable.

Robert DesJarlait is a respected elder and was the head man dancer at the powwow and these are his words:

“A few months ago I was asked to be head dancer for the Powwow for Hope. I didn't know that I would be dancing not only for survivors and caregivers of cancer, but I would be dancing for my own hope as well. Two weeks ago, I had a colonoscopy and a tumor was found in my colon. My biopsy indicated the tumor is benign and my CT scan indicates it may be cancerous. My surgeon, Genevieve Melton-Meaux, won’t call it cancer until the tumor has been removed and tested. Regardless, I am scheduled for surgery to remove a section of my colon.

In my language, cancer is called amogowin, meaning a spider web that grows and spreads within a person.  My father passed homeward from abdominal cancer in 1972. My family and those who have lost a loved one to amogowin become survivors who live in fear of this disease. For me, amogowin has become a potential reality. But I refuse to give into fear. As I’ve been taught, the Path of Life isn't a straight line; it has many twists and turns. So there is a reason for all this. 

The elders say the Fourth Hill of Life is the most difficult. Obviously, our bodies age and health becomes an issue. However, it becomes imperative that our spirit remains strong.  Our spirits should not become victims of whatever disease we may have.

Since my heart attack and resultant angioplasty in November, and especially the past several weeks, I've thought a lot about my own mortality. Usually we don't think about those things. And I know many older people avoid thinking about it. But I think it's healthy to think about it. It's necessary to prepare for that eventful day when we're called homeward. Of course, we don't know when that day will come, but when you're on that Fourth Hill of Life, you realize you're moving closer to that day. You never know when Gichi-Manidoo will call you home. You can be loving, kind, and humble - but that alone doesn't ensure a long life. We are here to learn and to teach - to try to teach by example. It's not always easy to do that because we're only human and we make mistakes.

Cherish life. Don't take life for granted. Your spirit was brought here for a reason. Life is a journey. Become resilient and learn how to overcome the frustrations and disappointments on your daily path. Tomorrow may never come, so live for today. Learn, love, dance, and sing. Feed your Anishinaabe Spirit and free it of resentments and bad feelings. Give thanks to the Creator for the life you have.”

Those are powerful and important words. Miigwech, Robert.

Screening tests are available for many types of cancer and include colonoscopy, pap tests, mammograms and others and your medical provider can help you decide which tests are appropriate. If caught early, cancers can be treatable and often curable. Catching them early means screening.

Talk to your medical provider. Robert said it best:

Don’t take life for granted.

Arne Vainio, M.D. is an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and is a family practice physician on the Fond du Lac reservation in Cloquet, Minnesota. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..