I wanted to take the time to pay tribute to the life and achievements of a leader in the cancer survivorship community Mary Lovato. Mary, the winner of the 2002 Carpe Diem Award from the Lance Armstrong Foundation, has passed away. She exemplified what it means to LIVESTRONG and as a result, many Native American communities throughout our nation now talk about cancer in a more open and supportive way. Mary continued to educate her people and provide guidance to other organizations attempting to address health disparities in Native American communities until the very end. As recently as last year, Mary provided the LAF with her insight and advice as we released A National Action Plan for Cancer Survivorship: Native American Priorities.
Mary never took “no” for an answer. She persevered and persisted until the job was done. Faced with seemingly impossible personal and professional challenges, she is credited with creating a program that is now a nationally recognized model for outreach in Native American Pueblos.
As I read the portion of the LAF Manifesto that states, “We believe in energy, channeled and fierce,” I think of Mary. I see her petitioning her tribal elders for three years before they allowed her to start a support group for cancer survivors. I see her waiting patiently another eight months until someone was brave enough to join the group, never losing hope that her cause was right. I see her overcoming her fear of speaking as a child to speak in front of thousands of doctors and medical professionals about cancer in Native communities. And I see her traveling tirelessly to all 50 states so that her people could benefit from her experience and be motivated to start their own cancer support programs.
Below is an Associated Press article that ran last year documenting Mary’s story and how she transformed her experience with cancer into action that continues to benefit tribal communities today.
Pueblo woman founds cancer support group
(c) Indian Country Today January 17, 2006.
All Rights Reserved
by: The Associated Press
By Jackie Jadrnak, Albuquerque Journal
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) – Mary Lovato had a vision while she lingered between life and death after a bone marrow transplant. While unconscious, she saw her dead parents and longed to reach out and hug them. No, they said. Stay back. Look down at your three children.
“They told me, ‘Once you turn in the four directions, you can wake up and see your kids,”‘ Lovato said. “They said, ‘You have a big responsibility you need to conquer at home.”‘
That was 1987. Lovato had been diagnosed with leukemia and had children ages 7, 4 and 3 at home. She had no idea, though, why she was still alive or what mission awaited her.
Three years later, a dream gave her the answer. She saw herself sitting with others, all talking about their illnesses, and realized that’s what she had to do: start a support group.
At her home on Santo Domingo Pueblo, Lovato said, people didn’t talk about cancer. Even among her sisters, she said, they didn’t talk about her illness; they just cried.
Members of her community didn’t understand cancer or how people got it, she said. To them, it was a death sentence.
“People rejected me from giving hugs. People didn’t want me to touch their child,” she said. “People said harsh words to me because I was a cancer victim.”
“I promised myself, I didn’t care how long it takes me, I didn’t want another cancer patient so alone like I was,” she said.
After her dream, another three years passed before she got tribal permission to start a support group. She said one governor told her she would be giving false hope because everyone who got cancer died from it.
Once she launched the group, supported by her sisters brewing coffee and baking cookies, it took another eight months for the first cancer patient to show up, Lovato said. Then participants would test her, telling her something that happened at home, waiting to see if it made its way around the villageas gossip.
“Once they found I could keep things confidential, then they started showing up,” she said.
Her persistence paid off with national honors, funding for her and her program and, more importantly, a stronger voice for Indians with cancer. “It took a lot of time and patience, but I never gave up,” Lovato said. “All I do is for my people.”
In 1997, the governor of New Mexico declared Dec. 22 to be Mary Lovato Day.
“I have tremendous respect for her as a pueblo woman,” said Magdalena Avila, a health educator and faculty member at the University of New Mexico. “She single-handedly brought forward the pueblo with personal education and advocacy in an area not talked about: cancer.”
And she did it in a way that honored tribal traditions and culture, Avila said.
“She’s a visionary. She’s thinking seven generations ahead,” she said.
Lovato has spoken at conferences throughout the country, met President Clinton and led workshops with other Indians on how to start their own support groups. Back in New Mexico, she hosts house parties, telling women how to screen for breast and cervical cancer.
And she doesn’t limit her efforts to women. Lovato will also stand in front of a roomful of men, often elders, telling them how to watch out for testicular and prostate cancer. Mixing her message with humor helps, she said.
“She’s an amazing woman. She’s so inspiring to the people who come into her life,” said Elizabeth Madden, executive director of St. Joseph Community Health Foundation.
That is the fund-raising arm of St. Joseph Community Health, where Lovato currently works with the program, “A Gathering of Cancer Support.” She visits Indians diagnosed with cancer, talking with them and their families about the disease, translating information, telling them what changes to expect.
She helps with transportation, often taking people to Santa Fe for chemotherapy and sitting with them for hours.
That grass-roots work has spread around the nation.
Lovato estimates she has visited all but five of the 50 states. This July, she spent nine days in Hawaii advising Native people how to establish cancer support programs.
She once doubted she would see her own children graduate from high school or college, let alone have the pleasure of meeting her grandchildren. When she was struck with leukemia, doctors told her chances of surviving were 50 – 50.
Just last year, Lovato suffered a stroke and a recurrence of her cancer.
“Maybe this is it,” she said she thought. “I accepted my cancer back. I accepted that I was going to die.”
But it didn’t happen. Chemotherapy put her back into remission, and she’s hard at work again.
“I’m still here,” Lovato said. “Maybe my mission is not accomplished.”