July 20, 2024

OPINION: A visionary investment in cancer care | Opinion

Cancer is a terrible disease that has taken an especially harmful toll on Native Americans. Each year, there are nearly 400 cancer cases within the Cherokee Nation health system, and nationwide, American Indians have some of the lowest cancer survival rates. Lack of access to early detection and cutting-edge treatments is a big reason why.

Two years ago, Deputy Chief Bryan Warner and I were chatting in my office about building the new W.W. Hastings Hospital when he raised a stern warning: If we didn’t invest now in cancer care, our patients might miss out on the most promising treatments in the coming years. Next, as he has so often done as Deputy Chief, he made addressing that issue his top priority.

We knew that building up the cancer care infrastructure near the Cherokee Nation Reservation would be key. Now we are ready to announce a new plan that will dramatically strengthen access to cancer treatment through partnerships with the University of Oklahoma in Tulsa and Mercy Health System in Ft. Smith, Arkansas.

Days ago, the Council of the Cherokee Nation unanimously supported a measure authorizing Deputy Chief Warner and I to negotiate agreements with each entity to expand access to cancer care for Cherokee citizens with a contribution of up to $8 million to each entity to advance completion of their respective cancer treatment center projects. Through these and other health investments, we are making a generational stride in improving the health of our citizens.

Cherokee Nation Health Services provides a significant amount of care for cancer patients already and doing important work in the area of cancer research. Now, the Mercy Health System’s ambitious new cancer treatment center aligns seamlessly with our vision for comprehensive health care. The benefits will be felt throughout Cherokee Nation, Northwest Arkansas and many of our bordering communities.

Likewise, we are enthusiastic about partnering with the University of Oklahoma on its cancer treatment center in Tulsa. These partnerships will help Cherokees within our reservation and the many Cherokees who live at-large and return home for medical care. As the largest tribe in the United States, we are taking on the responsibility of becoming a national leader in cancer treatment access.

This initiative also resonates deeply with our core values of “Gadugi” – working together for the collective good. Through strategic partnerships, we are building a health care ecosystem that should be the envy of Indian Country and the entire United States.

The tribe already has well established partnerships with esteemed institutions such as the Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine and the Northeastern State University Oklahoma College of Optometry. These relationships ensure our citizens have both well-rounded primary and specialized care. We are addressing the diverse needs of Cherokee citizens, with many add-on benefits for our friends and neighbors.

I know the lives we save today will go on to continue the spirit of Gadugi, giving back as health care workers or in another of the many ways we all contribute as beloved family and community members.

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