Refusing cancer treatment is questionable medicine for Indigenous girls

Traditional healing alongside Western health care offers best of both worlds
Photo: Dave Campbell

Growing up as a First Nations person in Canada, I have had a few opportunities to experience what we usually refer to as “Indian medicine.”

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I smudge, I’ve participated in sweat lodges and other traditional ceremonies, I’ve ingested the occasional traditional herbal remedy, and I know many others who have done the same and more. Throughout my life as a Native person I have turned to my culture for guidance, support and strength, and I have prayed hard for certain results.

The emotional relief I have found through my faith has often comforted me. I readily admit, though, that this is half the battle and sadly must concede that it is not the cure. I have never seen anyone cured of anything beyond the healing of their minds and hearts.

As a result, I have a very hard time reconciling why the parents of two 11-year-old First Nations girls who have been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia have refused medical treatment to instead pursue “traditional Aboriginal treatments.”

One of the girls, from the Six Nations of the Grand River, discontinued treatment this fall after 10 days of chemotherapy. Her mother has said the treatment is “poison” and that she has chosen alternative treatments “that will not compromise her well-being and quality of life.”

The girl, who is not being identified because of a publication ban, is being treated at the Hippocrates Health Institute in Florida, where the head “doctor” has been discredited at every turn.

A recent court ruling found in favour of the mother's decision to reject the chemotherapy in favour of “traditional medicines . . . coupled with the practices of nutrition as medicine."

The other girl, Makayla Sault of the New Credit First Nation in Ontario, was diagnosed in the spring and quit chemotherapy after 11 weeks, with her parents’ consent, prompting her doctors to contact the local Children’s Aid Society.

They were not successful in having the child apprehended and her parents have since pursued expensive treatments at the same clinic in Florida.

The family and their community, however, have argued that it is their Aboriginal right to use traditional medicines and health practices. They claim the child is capable of making her own life-and-death decisions concerning her medical treatment.

Yet the little girl claimed to her First Nations parents, who are pastors of an evangelical church on their reserve, that in addition to wanting the awful pain and suffering she was enduring to stop, she didn’t want to continue her treatment anymore because Jesus came to her in a vision and revealed to her that she had been healed.

I have to wonder. How traditional is that? And if Jehovah’s Witnesses can’t invoke the Lord in their defence of refusing life-saving medical treatments for their children, how come First Nations people can?

My faith in nature and my Creator has saved my spirit from bad medicine at times, but when I had holes in my teeth, a gash in my flesh, my eyes didn’t see well, and my pancreas wasn’t producing the insulin it needed to, I went to doctors of Western medicine to treat my physical body — as does everybody I know.

As Aboriginal people, we are fortunate, we have a history and a culture that is rich and we have firm beliefs and a faith that sees us through many bleak and difficult times.

We also have a knowledge of our environment that is immeasurable and has sustained our physical well-being for time immemorial. But that doesn’t mean we should not access other opportunities and methods to support or improve our health.

And as human beings, regardless of race, we inherently evolve. Chemotherapy is not a pleasant treatment, nor is radiation therapy — in fact, they are downright horrible — but cancer isn’t a pleasant disease. More people survive cancer today, because of these therapies, than ever before.

That is why, as indigenous people living in a First World country with access to a universal health care system, we need to take advantage of these additional opportunities to heal ourselves, while supplementing our treatments with traditional methods.

We are fortunate to have the best of both worlds, which is ultimately what will give us everything we need to endure, so that we can be cured of our afflictions, so that we may survive and thrive.

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