Cancer and Navajo Language

In the Navajo Nation, there is no word for cancer. Instead, people use the phrase "Lood doo na'ziihii," which literally means "the sore [or wound] that does not heal."

That translation – and others that do not accurately capture modern medical terminology – has contributed to problems the Navajo face in battling the disease.

"It quickly became apparent to us there was no standard or consistency in how cancer terminology was being translated into Navajo, which has led to a lot of confusion and a lot of misunderstanding," said Edward R. Garrison, who sits on the biology and public health faculty at Dine College in Shiprock, New Mexico.

Garrison is hoping to change that with a new glossary for cancer terminology in Navajo, a project funded by the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

In collaboration with the Mayo Clinic, principal investigator Garrison and his colleagues have produced 40-plus pages that cover everything from anesthesia – "a drug that causes the patient not to feel pain" – to ultraviolet radiation – "invisible rays that are part of the energy that comes from the sun."

Importantly, cancer is also redefined: "Cells in the body that grow uncontrollably."

Garrison said the cancer glossary, the first ever to be produced by a tribe, could have a direct impact on the Navajo people's decision to get cancer screening – and how they respond to the results.

Some Indian Health Service facilities, for example, report up to an 80 percent "no show" rate for mammogram appointments, a problem Garrison believes "must relate to some degree of misunderstanding or fear – or maybe a fear of knowing."

Much of that fear, he said, stems from the belief that cancer is not survivable.

"If you're told you have something rotten inside your body, it turns into an entirely negative perspective on their problem and not something they can address in healthy way," he said.

As a result, not only do some Navajo have poorer health, but the Navajo Nation fails to meet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for cancer diagnosis and treatment, making it ineligible for some federal funding.

"They constantly have to plead with the CDC," Garrison said.

After a review by the NCI, the glossary will be published and distributed.

Garrison hopes to also produce brochures and fliers, and get some of the new translations featured on the "Word of the Day" program on an local area radio station.

"We hope to do series of workshops both for providers around the Navajo Nation, for the public, patients and patients' family members, so people will know this resource is available," he said.