ALBUQUERQUE Ophelia Black-Spencer must carefully work through layers of linguistic and cultural barriers to explain cancer and its effects to her fellow Navajo tribal members.
Black-Spencer, a community health educator at the University of New Mexico, introduces herself by name and clan to establish a relationship and earn their trust. She speaks both Navajo and English, catering to older and younger generations.
She makes little mention of anatomy, so as not to offend the audience. The subject is particularly sensitive, because in Navajo belief, to talk about disease and death is an invitation to bring the condition upon the people.
And then there's the issue of how to describe cancer. For decades, Navajos have used a word that when translated into English means, "the sore that does not heal" lood doo na'dziihii.
It's Black-Spencer's biggest barrier and a description she says leads Navajos to lose any hope for survival. Officials at Dine College's Shiprock campus want to change that.
"A lot of people have this misconception that it doesn't heal and once you have it, it's a death sentence," said Edward Garrison, a biology and public health instructor, who is working on a glossary of cancer terms. "It's very unfortunate that some of these translations have become entrenched."
The college is halfway through a four-year project funded by the National Cancer Institute to rename Navajo cancer terminology.
In the end, Garrison hopes to make the glossary available as a guide for people like Black-Spencer, whose work takes her to Navajo communities where she presents information on cancer.
"It's not easy to go into a community and talk about personal issues, and a lot of Navajos don't share illnesses that they're faced with," she said. "It's a very private thing."
Garrison said he and a group of people working on the glossary have come up with about 100 words so far for various types of cancer, different causes of cancer, ways to diagnose and treat it and survival information.
The Navajo language tends not to borrow words from other languages. When a term emerges that Navajos are unfamiliar with, a description is used.
A computer, for example, is known as "the tool that thinks on its own." "Things are dug out," describes mining. For diabetes, it's "when your body does not use food properly." The meaning of a cell can vary from "a body seed," "a source of life" or "a strand of a body," depending on the area of the reservation and the dialect.
"The Navajo language comes in and creates, puts it all into perspective," said Frank Morgan, a consultant on the glossary project. The language "ties everything together so that you can see the whole picture."
Garrison and his team haven't come up with a phrase to describe cancer, but Morgan offers this: "when your source of life begins to grow out of control."
In that, he believes that people will understand that cancer can be treated if detected early through regular screenings.
"For each of these words, we have to be very sensitive to the way it will affect people," he said. "We don't want to scare people. ... Out of control says that's it growing without direction. The thing there is that it can be stopped."