Kathleen Tsosie sits in the waiting room of the San Juan Regional Cancer Center in Farmington. A one-year breast cancer survivor, she has just received devastating news: A new growth has been spotted in her remaining, healthy breast. Dressed in a turquoise blouse accented by silver jewelry, her hair growing back stylishly after chemotherapy, Tsosie now awaits an ultrasound. She looks worried.
She had hoped the cancer was behind her,
even though she faces another five to seven years of treatment with
tamoxifen, a drug given to prevent estrogen from binding to mammary
cells. "In our community, cancer is a death sentence," says Tsosie,
who was diagnosed a year ago, when she was 47. "People think you
don't recover. Now I find out you survive. You want to live when
that word cancer comes around. When I first heard I had cancer, I
thought it was a mistake. Then I flipped out. I thought, "Oh my
God, who is going to take care of my children and grandkids?' ...
So many things go through your mind. I have to do this, accomplish
this." She starts to cry quietly.
"Why? You always ask
yourself, "Why?' " Tsosie says, fingering the silver bracelets on
her left arm. Like many breast cancer patients, she is working
through the emotional stages: shock, fear, anger and a desire to
assign blame. Was it pesticide exposure in childhood? Not enough
broccoli, or too many hormone-laced meats? There are many possible
culprits, but for Tsosie, as for many Navajo women, one villain
stands out above all others. "It's obvious the uranium is related
to my cancer," says Tsosie. She grew up in the town of Cove, in the
northeastern corner of Arizona, which was one of the Navajo
Reservation's major uranium-producing areas.
from Tohatchi died from breast cancer," Tsosie recalls. "Our
fathers worked in the mines. My father died from lung cancer when
he was 45. It was the same old stories, the clothes covered with
dust. We grew up in the mountains. We drank that cold water from
the mine, had picnics right there, played in the tailings. We
didn't know what it was. We thought it was just a pile of dirt."
Navajo Nation council delegate Phil Harrison, who is
Tsosie's cousin, also grew up near Cove. "Mine waters seeped into
the arroyos, and contamination sat there for decades," he says. "I
would say all the water in the area was contaminated. It's finally
getting cleaned up."
The cleanup is due to the efforts of
Harrison, Tsosie and other activists. Even before her diagnosis,
Tsosie campaigned against a proposal by Hydro Resources Inc. to
open a uranium mine near Church Rock and Crownpoint. As a member of
Eastern Navajo Dine Against Uranium Mining, she's testified before
state representatives, made videos and given press interviews. She
lobbied the Navajo Nation to pass its landmark ban on uranium
mining in 2005.
Many traditional Navajos consider breast
cancer to be a taboo subject, but Tsosie, a school administrator
and the president of the Shiprock agency school board, is willing -
even eager - to talk about it. "I don't think it's so difficult to
talk about breast cancer," Tsosie says. "It's better that people
know about our health, our life. It's a waking call." Tsosie still
has a mother to take care of, as well as her children and
grandchildren. "I've helped so many people," she says. "I don't