Being A Warrior Is In My Blood

My name Kristine Bahe-Sprigler. I am half Native American and half Caucasian. When I was diagnosed with cervical cancer I had to lean on my heritage for my source of strength. It was a great reminder of the those that came before me and what it meant to have their blood run through mine.

I am from the “Zuni” Clan which is my father’s mother’s clan and “The Water Flow Together” Clan is my paternal grandfather’s clan. This is what defines me as Navajo and is determined from matrilineality.

Navajo women are the matriarch and we (all Navajo’s) introduce ourselves by clan which identifies and defines relationships between individuals and families. When you meet someone with one or more of your same clan, you become related by clan. You can also tell a region by someone’s clan.

The Navajo Nation occupies portions of Southeastern Utah, Northeastern Arizona, and Northwestern New Mexico – the capital being Window Rock, AZ.

You can find hogans on the reservation, which are primarily built from logs and mud. The door always faces East to welcome the sun each morning for wealth and good fortune. Some are used for dwellings, but others are used for ceremonial purposes and regarded as sacred.

My grandfather, Roy Begay, was part of the original 29 U.S. Marines that were recruited and served as a Navajo Code Talker in World War II. He proudly served his country and is a recipient of Congressional Medal of Honor.

My mother is of Irish, English and German heritage. She comes from a very creative line. My grandfather was a musician and played in the U.S. Army band traveling around the bases and performing. He came from a very musical family. I learned to love music by watching my grandfather play while growing up. I chose to play alto sax and piano starting in the fifth grade and played in Jazz and marching bands. My grandmother was a professional dancer traveling between New York and Cuba performing with a partner until she chose to stop dancing to start a family.

My great-great grandfather on my mothers side, George Washington Taggart, was part of the journey of the Mormon Battalion, which was comprised of about 500 Latter-Day Saints that joined the U.S. Army during the Mexican American war, which made several contributions to the settlement of the American West.

I believe my strength comes from both sides of my family. We come from a long line of warriors. I was diagnosed with stage I cervical cancer in 2012 when I was 34 years old to which I received a radical hysterectomy. The decisions leading to that were difficult and heart wrenching as I wasn’t sure our family was complete. I suffered from anxiety and depression for a few years after. Being diagnosed with cancer is difficult – it teaches you humility and vulnerability all the while showing you what strength you possess even years later.

November is Native American Heritage Month, a month dedicated to paying tribute to the ancestry and traditions of Native Americans. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the disparities American Indian and Alaska Native women are facing with cervical cancer. According to the American Indian Cancer Foundation, American Indian and Alaska Native women are nearly twice as likely to develop cervical cancer compared to white women and four times as likely to die from it.

Those are statistics I would like to help change. Cervical cancer is preventable. I share my story to remind you to be proactive with your health. Make those uncomfortable gynecologist/prevention visits and ask about the HPV vaccination for your child(ren).

At the age of 34, Kristine was diagnosed with stage I squamous cell carcinoma. She has found healing and purpose in sharing her story and in advocacy. After her dark and lonely experience with cancer, her goal was and continues to be to empower others to be shame resilient. She became a Cervivor Ambassador after attending Cervivor School in 2016 and she is currently in her 9th year of survivorship with no evidence of disease.

Surviving Both Breast & Cervical Cancer

1 in 8 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime and it remains to be the most common cancer amongst women in the U.S. The death rates from breast cancer have reduced due to advancements in technology and routine breast cancer screenings.

It is estimated that about 14,480 new invasive cases of cervical cancer will be diagnosed in 2021. Cervical cancer was once the most common cancer death amongst women in the U.S. Cancer death rates were reduced significantly with the use of a screening tool to detect changes in the cervix, also known as the Pap test.

Early detection and screening has saved so many of us. Can you imagine making it through one cancer diagnosis only to be given another and a different type at that? Hear from two of our Cervivor community members in their experiences with both breast and cervical cancer.

Laura shares her thoughts as a breast and cervical cancer survivor

After treatment, Laura was trying to find other advocates and advocacy resources for cervical cancer patients. She noticed there was a difference in how the treatments were carried out and in the kind of support she received between the two cancers.

“I first encountered cancer in the form of cervical cancer. The treatments were isolating, there was a lack of resources, and there was a stigma that left me feeling ashamed and not understanding why. Two years later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I experienced a complete 180, the treatments took place in a communal setting, pink support was everywhere, and there was no feeling of shame.”

Laura wanted to understand what she could do to help gynecologic cancer patients, specifically cervical cancer patients. She was drawn to Cervivor School as a way to dive in with trusted resources and what she found, in addition, was a sisterhood and a way to network with community partners. Since Laura attended Cervivor School Chicago in 2019, she has built community partnerships like the one with her local American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACSCAN).

“My plea to everyone is to not let any screening lapse – cervical, breast, skin, colon, etc. Don’t let your guard down against cancer of any type!”

Read Laura’s Cervivor story here, then read her interview with the Daily Journal.

Photo Courtesy of Daily Journal

Karen, a former nurse, and breast cancer survivor gives helpful tips on navigating a diagnosis

Karen was well aware of the pink ribbon after her experience with breast cancer. She found herself asking what ribbon color represented cervical cancer after her diagnosis in 2015.

Karen recommends these helpful tips on navigating a cancer diagnosis:

  • First, don’t Google it. This can put you in a negative headspace right off the bat.
  • Get to know all of the key care team members taking care of you.
  • Bring a family member or friend to all of your appointments as a second set of ears. If you are not able to have someone with you due to unforeseen circumstances, ask your care team if it is okay to record your visit with your smart phone.
  • Bring a notebook and keep a running list of questions you may want to ask your care team between visits. This also comes in handy to keep track of side effects, medications, etc.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help!

She expresses additional things that helped her during her cancer treatment, “I went to physical therapy to regain mobility, I reached out for support to other friends that had had breast cancer – like my friend that lives in Australia. She and I would text on those nights I couldn’t sleep. I decided to see a counselor in conjunction with my psychiatrist to work through the emotional turmoil I was experiencing.  With breast cancer, I didn’t feel abandoned by my friends but when I had cervical cancer, it felt different. Lastly, I continued going to my favorite place at the lake so I could connect with nature’s beauty. It really brought some peace into my life.”

Read Karen’s Cervivor story here then read her blog post “On Wednesdays we wear Pink”… wait, what?.

Karen attending Cervivor School Chicago in 2019

If you’re reading this today and you haven’t scheduled your routine cancer screenings, pick up your phone or go online and schedule them now! Screening and early detection saves lives.

Screening guidelines change often with the advancement of technology. If you’re unsure of your screening guidelines, go here for breast cancer and here for cervical cancer.

Are you a patient, survivor, and/or thriver looking for support? Visit these resources: