'I hope this brings people hope': Jill Biden touts cancer initiative during Arizona visit – The Arizona Republic


TOHONO O’ODHAM NATION —  On the 2.8 million acres of Tohono O’odham land southwest of Tucson, there’s not a single place for tribal members to obtain a colonoscopy, First Lady Jill Biden and U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra learned Tuesday afternoon.
A lack of access to health services, a lack of cancer awareness, historical trauma and inadequate representation in clinical trials were among health issues that the first lady and Becerra heard about as they visited the San Xavier Health Clinic, which is in the San Xavier District of the Tohono O’odham Nation.
The tribal nation includes about 35,000 members. Slightly less than half of those live on the reservation, where they are often miles away from health services that they need, including cancer screening and cancer care, tribal chairman Ned Norris Jr. said during the visit.
Standing outside the main building of the two-story, white clinic, which was built at the turn of the century, Becerra acknowledged that not having adequate health services like colonoscopies is a problem that the Biden administration is committed to fixing. 
“It certainly is a problem for families that want to get care quickly … We’re trying to make sure we’re not letting people fall through the cracks,” he said. “COVID exposed the cracks we have in our health system.”
He added that President Biden’s budget provides “substantially more resources” for Indian Health Services than the agency has ever seen, “so that we can expand services to places like this.”
The first lady on Tuesday emphasized that the Biden-Harris administration is relaunching its Cancer Moonshot initiative, which first began in 2016 under the Obama administration to support research and foster progress in treatment and care. One purpose of her visit is to create awareness of that effort, she said.
“I hope this brings people hope, and that’s why I’m here,” Biden said to applause from health clinic employees who gathered outside, many of them lined up on a hill adjacent to the area where she gave her remarks.
The Moonshot initiative is also a way for the Bidens to find purpose from the loss of their son, Beau Biden, who died from glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer, in 2015 at the age of 46, the first lady said Tuesday.
“I wanted to re-state a commitment to ending cancer as we know it,” she said, adding that she’s traveled to other tribal nations to speak about Native American health needs. “This is really special for me and Joe … It’s something that I think our son would want us to do. Joe is totally committed to this.”
The Tohono O’odham Nation has a program and services partnership with the University of Arizona’s Arizona Cancer Center. Among other things, the partnership has focused on improving disproportionately high rates of colorectal cancer incidence and mortality among American Indians, who comprise about 4% of Arizona’s total population — approximately 288,000 to 300,000 people.
Contributing to the colon cancer disparities are low colon cancer screening rates among American Indians, poor access to colon cancer treatments and a lack of health education, said Joann Sweasy, who is director of the UA’s Cancer Center, and was one of the health officials who met with Biden at the San Xavier Health Center.
“If individuals don’t undergo screening, they present with advanced-stage colorectal cancer, which essentially is not curable,” she said in an interview Monday. “Colon cancer is completely preventable by screening … When we take a look at all the cancers that can be screened, colorectal cancer screening was really amongst the lowest in tribal nations.”
In 2020, the UA’s Cancer Center received a $3 million, three-year award from the first National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Moonshot initiative to increase colorectal cancer screening in Arizona’s American Indian communities.
The initiative already has proven effective, increasing screening rates by 200% in aggregate in Arizona communities the UA has targeted, including the San Carlos Apache Nation, the Hopi Tribe and the Navajo Nation, Sweasy said.
The partnership with the Tohono O’odham Nation is new, Sweasy said. 
First Lady’s visit: Biden highlights community college program and praises the president
“We have a memorandum of understanding with the nation and right now we’re partnering with them to hire a navigator for the program,” Sweasy said. “I met the chairman today and he’s very excited about partnering with the Arizona Cancer Center and we are so excited to partner with them.”
UA officials estimate that only 9% to 35% of Arizona’s Native Americans with regular access to health care are current with colorectal cancer screening guidelines, compared with two-thirds of the general Arizona and U.S. populations.
As Vice President in 2016, Joe Biden introduced the first Cancer Moonshot initiative with an aim of accelerating the rate of progress against cancer, which kills about 600,000 Americans per year. That first initiative was included in the 21st Century Cures Act, which authorized $1.8 billion to fund the Cancer Moonshot over a seven-year period.
Last month, Biden reignited the Cancer Moonshot, stating a goal of reducing the age-adjusted death rate from cancer by at least 50% over the next 25 years, and improving the experience of people and their families living with and surviving cancer.
As part of that effort, Biden and the first lady announced a call to action on cancer screening to jumpstart progress on prevention measures that were missed as a result of the pandemic.
“Our Moonshot funding runs out in a year and a half or so, and we’ve onboarded more partners and we’d like to expand our program because it’s making such a difference,” Sweasy said Monday. “We really hope that we’ll be able to obtain more Moonshot funding in the near future.”
Sweasy told Biden and Becerra about an Arizona clinical trials network that the UA is developing to reach out to underserved populations, including Hispanics, American Indians and people across the state in rural areas that have little if any access to cancer-related services and education. 
The UA’s Arizona Cancer Center partners with Arizona tribes on other cancer prevention and treatment, not just colorectal screening.
In 2019 the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona became the first tribe in the Southwest to have a designated cancer clinic with board-certified oncologists on reservation land. That $2 million clinic is in Tuba City and operated by the Tuba City Regional Health Care Corporation, and the UA Cancer Center has collaborated on that, too.
One key to improving health care access and cancer prevention, Sweasy emphasized, is increasing the proportion of Native American researchers, public health advocates and health providers in Arizona, which is an ongoing effort.
After touring the San Xavier Health Clinic, Biden and Becerra visited the San Xavier del Bac Mission, an 18th-century church that is also on Tohono O’odham reservation land.
Biden stood outside the church and met with the Rev. Bill Minkel, who was wearing a black hooded robe with a rope belt. 
“Oh this is amazing. It’s beautiful!” Biden said when she entered the church. 
“Father, may we ask you to say a prayer for the people of Ukraine,” she asked. 
His prayer called on civic leaders to come to a peaceful resolution. 
Biden also watched a performance by The Wa:k Tab Basket Singers and Dancers, an all-female group that honors Tohono O’odham tradition of basket weaving. 
Later, Biden and Becerra celebrated International Women’s Day at the home of Tucson Mayor Regina Romero. 
“As we really recognize the incredible contributions of the women who have shaped our history, I’m thinking of the countless women whose names we really don’t know,” Biden said.
“I’m thinking about the women in Ukraine, fighting to keep their country safe. And those holding their children, holding them close as they flee to safety. And we’ve all seen the pictures. … And I’m thinking of the brave women of Russia who have risked their safety to speak out.”
Biden also spoke about elevating the voices of Latinas, “whose contributions have not always been celebrated the way they should be,” and complimented Romero, who is Tucson’s first female mayor as well as the first Mexican-American to hold the office since the 1870s, when Arizona was still a territory.
Biden was scheduled to depart Tucson for Reno, Nevada, Wednesday morning.
Reach the reporter at Stephanie.Innes@gannett.com or at 602-444-8369. Follow her on Twitter @stephanieinnes
Support local journalism. Subscribe to azcentral.com today.

source


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.