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Virginia’s native tribes drive Massey efforts to eliminate disparities

Sep 19, 2022

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Panelists at the Sovereign Nations of Virginia Conference shared negative impacts their native tribes are experiencing related to land, the climate and other issues. Listening in the audience were members of the VCU Massey Cancer Center team, poised to use this input for outreach addressing health and cancer disparities.

“These very same environmental and structural factors impacting our Native American communities are also cancer risk factors,” said Robert A. Winn, M.D., director and Lipman chair of Oncology at Massey. “Their fight is our fight. This is another example of one team, one fight. One nation, one fight.”

Massey’s increased efforts to investigate disparities among Virginia’s indigenous people most recently led to a community-academic partnership called Chickahominy T.R.U.T.H., which stands for Trust, Research, Understand, Tell and Heal.

“Chickahominy T.R.U.T.H. is in response to community concerns about concentrated cancer incidence in Charles City County,” said  Katherine Tossas, Ph.D., M.S., director of catchment area data access and alignment, Harrison Endowed Scholar in Cancer Research and Cancer Prevention and Control research member at Massey. “There was a tribal member who had been keeping tabs on different cancers that were popping up among her neighbors. She wrote them down in a notebook and asked many different people over the years if they thought it might be a cancer cluster and if nearby industries could have been contributing to it.”

Tossas looked into the situation with T.R.U.T.H. co-principal investigator Maria Thomson, Ph.D., who is a member of the Cancer Prevention and Control research program and director of the Community Champions Program at Massey as well as associate professor in health behavior and policy at the VCU School of Medicine.

They identified 15 different types of cancer; twelve of them have a water or air pollution link in the literature. T.R.U.T.H. received 150 kits to test approximately 10% of the residences located within a four-mile radius of a Charles City industrial site; it will train volunteers to serve on a health brigade to help conduct the large-scale study in the coming weeks.

During an August interview, Chief Stephen Adkins, who is also the Chickahominy tribal administrator, thanked Massey for helping to find answers to questions the tribe has asked for years.

“Both my mom and my dad passed away from cancer, and there is a high incidence of cancer in this area,” noted Adkins. “We said we'd like to see if there's a relationship between the environment or if it's hereditary. Why do we have such a high incidence of cancer in this area in and around the Chickahominy Tribal Center? And that got the attention of Dr. Winn. He then talked to Dr. Tossas, and here we are.”

Added Adkins, “I'm hoping that what we're doing now with Chickahominy T.R.U.T.H. will be a catalyst to help Chickahominy people really want to be more engaged in the medical profession, in the science arena. We do have people who are professional engineers. We have folks who are in the nursing profession. We have other folks who are entering medical school, so our people are starting to become involved in those professions. That elevates the trust level among indigenous people when they can see someone who looks like themselves as a part of that profession.”

While on site at the Sovereign Nations of Virginia Conference, Winn and Tossas had an opportunity to connect with Adkins, along with Anne Richardson, chief of the Rappahannock tribe, and Reggie Tupponce, Jr., tribal administrator for the Upper Mattaponi tribe. They reaffirmed Massey’s commitment to serve the native community.

“Time, talking, togetherness. That’s the formula to bring about change,” said Winn. “Massey’s time, talking and togetherness at the conference fueled our efforts to eliminate cancer disparities among native tribes even more. We are moving the needle.”

Written by: Amy Lacey

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