‘Don’t let me have gone through this for nothing.’ Son shares mother’s legacy after passing from colorectal cancer | Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium

‘Don’t let me have gone through this for nothing.’ Son shares mother’s legacy after passing from colorectal cancer

July 13, 2020

Intro note: As we begin to put dates back on our calendars, remember to put your health care appointments and preventive screenings back in too. ANMC has safely reopened its specialty care clinics for cancer screenings and other health care needs difficult to complete over telehealth video appointments. Call your provider about options available and learn about what we’re doing to keep patients and staff safe during COVID-19.

This story shares the importance of early colorectal cancer screening for Alaska Native people.

“Don’t let me have gone through this for nothing.”

Those were some of the last words Rhoda Fox, Inupiaq name Qinugan, said to her son Eric Fox, Ivalu, before she passed away after a long bout with colorectal cancer.

Rhoda was in her first year of retirement when the stomach pains started. After trying other care options, things came to a head and she was brought to the ANMC Emergency Department, where doctors found that she had a tumor in her colon.

“That day, they found the tumor in her colon that was basically blocking everything. She couldn’t even move – the stuff inside her couldn’t even move,” Eric Fox said.

She was diagnosed with colorectal cancer and went into surgery to have the tumor removed.

“They went right into surgery and took it out and thought that they had got it all,” Eric said.

She was set up on a series of scans to monitor her colon health after being released from the hospital. The scans were showing up fine until about eight months later, when a scan came back and she was diagnosed with cancer. The family again gathered with their mother to decide how to proceed.

Rhoda went through the grueling process of chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

“You’re putting poison in your body. And to see your mother, the one who you love, go through this treatment… anybody who’s been through chemo, you get hit by it and it knocks you back,” Eric said. “I remember trying to feed her and bring food to her and get her back healthy enough just to go through treatment again.”

“It was just heartbreaking to watch having to lose all that weight. It was such a struggle; such a battle and she was so brave through it all. But it was so hard to watch and try to get her to a place to take on that battle.”

It was devastating for the family.

“It was a war of attrition so by the end, when the cancer finally came around the last time, and we knew it was the end and she’s passing, we said you fought the good fight, you don’t have to fight anymore,” Eric said. 

“We are battling an epidemic”

After Eric lost his mother to colorectal cancer in September 2018, he was approached by the American Cancer Society (ACS), who wanted to help Eric share his mom’s story in the hopes of preventing what happened to her from happening to other Alaska Native people. Eric, who is vice president of security at NANA Management Services and a leader in the Native community, jumped at the chance.

“I made it clear that I wanted to participate but had a very specific focus: address what cancer is doing to Alaska Natives,” Eric said. “We are battling an epidemic right now. So many of my family members, the people that I know, my mom and close family have been hit by cancer and succumbed to cancer.”

Eric sits on the advisory board of the ACS Alaska chapter. Now, he focuses on educating others of the risks of colorectal and other cancers, and steep death toll that cancer brings to the Alaska Native community.

“If it was something else that was decimating our people, a person, a cause, an organization, that was going out there and decimating our people, we would be up in arms.  Why is in not like that with the battle against cancer?  Why are we not up in arms against this thing?”

Colorectal cancer is one of the most frequently diagnosed cancers among Alaska Native people. Alaska Native people are also diagnosed at higher rates and at younger ages than the general U.S. population. Colorectal cancer is also easily cured if detected early by diagnostic screenings.

“There’s an educational part, there’s a call to action, where people have to make actual lifestyle choices, and there’s the screening part, where people need to get screened – especially for Alaska Natives when they hit 40,” Eric said.

It is recommended that all Alaska Native people are screened at 40. There are other steps to reducing your risk as well. Eric has been screened but hopes other Alaska Native people will follow suit.

“For whatever reason, our people are not being screened or are shying away from it,” Eric said. “It needs to be, not only accepted, but proactive and getting out there advocating for themselves in getting screened.”

“If you think of generations, our Elders should’ve been screened, our middle-aged generation, like myself, should be getting screened, but our younger generation can also have a role in knowing about this making lifestyle choices and asking their aaka’s and ataata’s and their own parents – have you guys been screened?”

You can start at any age too. At 48, Eric’s also made lifestyle changes.

“I quit chewing for one thing. Try to increase fiber through various means. Try to be healthy but it’s pretty tough when you’re middle-aged and to fight some of those things that naturally come with it, I try to make it to the gym,” Eric said with a laugh.

He’s also talking to his kids Liam, 11, and Noah, 8, about eating healthy and building healthy habits.

“I try to have organic foods around. Try to increase the fruits and vegetables, which wasn’t a normal piece of my childhood growing up. But I try to have healthy choices, eat healthy and be an example for my kids,” Eric said.

“The more natural it is, the better it is for you.”

As a member of the ACS Advisory Board, Eric chairs a partnership between ACS and ANTHC that helps connect Alaska Native people to cancer resources. Through these talks, he learned of Dr. Stephen O’Keefe and the Fiber Study, a research study looking at adding fiber the diet of Alaska Native people and the impact it will have on gut health.

“She wasn’t one of those touchy-feely moms, but she always showed us love in one form or another. One of the forms was by feeding us. In the Inupiaq culture, food is a big thing,” Eric said of what they ate growing up. “One of the things she would do, no matter what time at night, no matter how busy of a day she had – she was a single mom, hard-working lady – didn’t matter if it was 9 o’clock at night. She made sure we had a good dinner.”

Previous studies have shown that maintaining a healthy weight and eating a balanced diet can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer. According to O’Keefe and his research, whole foods are best for fiber. They are available canned and frozen, but can also be found growing wild across Alaska.

“But what she (mom) didn’t know and what was available for us when we lived in the village – so much of what we ate was processed food. If she’d have known about things like diet and processed foods and the need for fiber. Had she known, would she have done that? Because it creates this environment in your body that’s cancer prone and where cancer can really thrive,” Eric said.

According to the Alaska Native Traditional Food Guide, wild plants can be excellent sources of fiber. One cup of raw blueberries, for example, has 4 grams of fiber, and one cup of crowberries or wild blackberries has 5 grams. Wild greens such as fiddlehead, fireweed, nettle, seaweed and sourdock are also high in fiber.

“Had she known, she wouldn’t have ever done it,” Eric said.

Eating traditional foods from subsistence hunting and gathering can have a positive impact on gut health.

“If we’re going out and hunting or catching it ourselves, we know there’s not steroids and antibiotics and all these things injected into these animals. If we’re going out and catching it, it’s natural and the more natural it is, the better it is for you.”

“It’s not impossible, it’s actually doable.”

Eric hopes that sharing his story will get others in the Alaska Native community involved in learning about how to reduce their own risks of colorectal cancer.

“People don’t recognize when they are higher risk. How big a part is tobacco, alcohol, diet, exercise, weight? If someone were to look at all these things leading to colorectal cancer, would they be a bit more inclined to get in and do something?” he said.

He also wants Alaska Native people to be advocates in their own health and wellness journey.

“Pay attention to our own intuitions and advocate for ourselves when we need something,” he said. “As a community, if we understand it’s preventable and you make the right lifestyle choices and then be screened. Wouldn’t it be awesome if our colorectal cancer rates came down a significant percent? How many lives is that in the Alaska Native community? It’s not impossible, it’s actually doable.”

Talk to your provider about colorectal cancer screening options if you are 40 or older.

If you are interested in taking part in the Fiber Study or would like more information, call a study staff member at (907) 229-0712. Read about the study, here.

To learn more about the American Cancer Society, visit their website.

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