When the emcee called for cancer survivors to come out to the floor at the 2013 Powwow for Hope, Robert DesJarlait (Red Lake Band of Chippewa) walked out to the shock of all those around him. “It was an emotional experience” Robert said, reflecting on his decision to go public for the first time about his cancer story. Although he hadn’t officially been diagnosed at the time of the powwow, he knew deep down that it was true. Today, Robert feels it is his responsibility to share his cancer story.
When Robert started to notice symptoms of colon cancer in 2013, he became afraid because he knew cancer ran in his family. His father died of stomach cancer in 1972. After getting sick and going to the hospital, he found out his red blood cell count was low, so his specialist ordered a colon test and a biopsy. Robert had surgery to remove his ascending colon and lymph nodes, which confirmed that he had cancer, but brought the good news that it had not broken through the colon wall.
Robert’s follow-up care included a yearly CAT scan and colon test, and it was three years later that they found a precancerous polyp. A few months after the polyp was removed, a tumor was found in the left lobe of his liver and his neck. The tumor in his neck was not dangerous, but the one in his liver had to be removed. He went through chemotherapy and then surgery in 2016 which left him on the table for nine hours. In January of 2017, Robert started chemo again to remove any traces of cancer that might be left. He has lost all his hair with “no stubble left” and the main thing he struggles with is the fatigue. “Since I’m an active person, it’s hard to deal with.”
Robert uses traditional medicine during his treatment to achieve balance between his physical, mental and spiritual healing. His approach to healing comes from traditions that he has learned throughout his life and include bringing his eagle fan to treatment, offering tobacco and smudging. He believes in the power of traditional medicines to carry him through his cancer journey: “When we get cancer, we have doctors that can remove it, but we have ways of bringing a balance in how we deal with it personally. I don’t believe we have medicine that cures cancer, but we can take care of it in a traditional way. It’s been an important part of healing, combining the two together. If you approach it spiritually, the emotional and physical aspects are brought into balance.”
Robert has been vocal about his cancer journey since 2013. While he understands that some people may be uncomfortable talking about cancer in American Indian communities, he has made the decision to face it head on. When Robert used to look at his cancer scar in the mirror, he would ask himself “Why me?” With reflection, he discovered that the Creator’s role for him was to be a cancer educator and he embraces it. “Creator put me in this role in the community to speak out about it. Creator wants me to talk about it.”
Robert talks about his cancer story to encourage people to get screened. “If I had gotten my screening when I was supposed to, I probably would never have gotten cancer.” Screening is recommended to start at 45 years of age for American Indians due to their high risk of the disease. “It’s interesting that there are more and more people with cancer. It floors me with what is going on here. If everyone got tested and screened regularly, we wouldn’t see these people cancer.” He warns: “It’s important to get your screening – otherwise you could end up like me.”
Thank you, Robert DesJarlait for sharing your story. To read more about his cancer journey, check out his blog at: cancerpathnotes.weebly.com. Visit AICAF.org/category/colon-cancer-stories for more Colon Cancer Awareness Month Survivor Stories.