Indigenous Cancer Sharing Circle: healing through cultural connection

June 21, 2024

Three years into the inception of Wellspring’s Indigenous Cancer Sharing Circle, the monthly program continues to fill an important role in meeting the needs of Indigenous people living with cancer.

Despite the deeply ingrained cultural resilience and community strength, Indigenous communities face significant disparities in cancer outcomes compared to non-Indigenous Canadians. Barriers to cancer care further exacerbate this situation, with reduced screening, delayed diagnosis, and systemic racism contributing to the challenges. The Indigenous Cancer Sharing Circle steps in to fill this gap, providing a safe place for Indigenous people with cancer to share about their experiences.

“The program has evolved to accommodate a dedicated group of individuals who often comment on how supported they feel as a result of their participation in the monthly circle. There is often deep sharing of personal experiences and feelings, and members are comfortable to express their emotions in the safety of the setting,” said Ariel Learoyd, registered social worker and Wellspring program leader.

As one participant of the sharing circle, Shelley Harley, shares: “Healing is much more than countless doctor’s appointments, treatments, medications, etc. It is also about honouring who we are and where we come from and incorporating ancestral traditions that we can share in a safe place with no judgement.”

Involved with the program since its early development, Learoyd explains that Wellspring’s Indigenous Cancer Sharing Circle was collaboratively designed with Alberta’s Indigenous nurse navigator, ensuring close attention was paid to cultural history and norms, as well as present day challenges facing Indigenous people as they interface with the medical system during their cancer journey.

She also informs of the in-depth cultural training provided to Wellspring staff and program leaders, and shares that the presence of an Elder at each monthly meeting provides members with cultural guidance and acknowledgement of the important role spirituality plays in Indigenous healing.

“Some members have sought out further contact with Elders and other members they have connected with in the group, and some have stated that contact with the group and the Elders has helped them to reconnect with their culture,” said Learoyd, adding, “These outcomes are beyond what we even anticipated for this group and since Wellspring’s mission is to ensure no one has to face cancer alone, we feel this group aligns beautifully with our intentions to include and support all members of our community in a way that honours their unique needs and backgrounds.”

Indigenous Peoples have relied on sharing circles for centuries, creating safe and nurturing environments where all can freely communicate, gain wisdom, and receive support.

“I cannot fathom my journey without this monthly time of gathering,” said circle participant Rhonda Anderson, adding “This is how our ancestors connected. This is how we connect at the Indigenous Cancer Sharing Circle. With my hand on my heart (Blackfoot way of expressing thankfulness) my gratitude for the Indigenous Cancer Sharing Circle is deep and full. My life is fuller.”

Collaboration is Key

As is the case with many facets of Wellspring, collaboration is key to the success of reaching and serving the multitude of individuals, caregivers and families in need of cancer support.

In the instance of the Indigenous Cancer Sharing Circle, Wellspring respectfully leans into an exemplary network of Indigenous Elders, who graciously offer their wisdom, guidance and time-honoured culture and traditions to the group that meets monthly at Wellspring.

Wellspring also enjoys a prolific partnership with AHS Cancer Care Alberta. With shared goals of expanding practices of diversity and inclusion, and common mandates to meet the needs of all Albertans facing cancer, the organizations have struck a partnership that goes a long way to helping bridge gaps.

“Many Indigenous people reflect a sense of isolation and distress when going through a cancer diagnosis, care, recovery, and loss,” said Krista Marsden, Community Liaison and Patient Education Specialist, AHS Cancer Care Alberta.

In a letter of support for Wellspring Alberta, Marsden, along with colleague Deb Allatt, Community Liaison and Patient Education Specialist, AHS Cancer Care Alberta, outlined the benefits of partnering with Wellspring.

“Wellspring Alberta is an exceptional partner for Cancer Care Alberta, our Indigenous supports, and for patients and families. Wellspring’s Indigenous Cancer Sharing Circle is one of the top resources shared with patients by the [AHS] Indigenous Cancer Patient Navigators. They lead with heart and are grounded in exceptional practices. Cancer care is broadly striving to enhance its ability to meet, include, and support more diverse peoples and Wellspring is leading in this Sharing Circle.” – Krista Marsden, Community Liaison and Patient Education Specialist, AHS Cancer Care Alberta; and Deb Allatt, Community Liaison and Patient Education Specialist, AHS Cancer Care Alberta.

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