Stories about cancer from the Woodland Cree of Northern Saskatchewan

Rose Alene Roberts
Department of Community Health and Epidemiology, University of Saskatchewan
August, 2006
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Background . Cancer incidence is increasing among Aboriginal peoples in Canada. The semi-isolated conditions of Northern Saskatchewan provide challenges for both health care workers and patients receiving cancer care. Since limited information exists on the way cancer is perceived and experienced, the purpose of this study was to explore the views of cancer, health and illness among the Woodland Cree in Northern Saskatchewan.

Methodology . Woodland Cree participants from the Lac La Ronge Band included 6 Elders, 8 cancer survivors, and 12 family members from five northern communities. Being a member of the band and fluent in the traditional language, the principal investigator used a narrative inquiry approach. Perceptions of cancer, health and illness were elicited through 18 personal interviews and two group interviews. Composite story creation and thematic analysis were the two methods used to analyze the data.

Findings . Four broad themes were generated from the data. The concepts of health and illness among the Woodland Cree show that there is a complex intertwining of Western and traditional belief systems. Knowledge systems of the Woodland Cree represent the ways of knowing and being, including the seminal role Elders have within the communities as teachers and knowledge keepers. Cancer as experienced by the Woodland Cree reflects the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual aspects of having cancer or having a family member with cancer, including the challenges of receiving timely diagnoses and cancer care in isolated northern communities. Straddling both worlds was a theme that meandered throughout the data. The Woodland Cree have the capacity to pick the best from both the Western and traditional worlds, by accessing their inherent survival mechanisms.

Discussion . Reluctance to talk about cancer seemed to be a deterrent from participating in the study. Family members need specific support mechanisms apart from the cancer patient and this may not be readily available. Challenges and opportunities for more culturally sensitive ways of providing cancer prevention and care are discussed. Further research is needed to investigate if the findings are reflected among other First Nations.