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Grantee Spotlight: American Samoa

Ana Maria Lopez, M.D., M.P.H., FACP American Samoa

Victor T. Williams Tofaeono
Lyndon Baines Johnson Tropical Medical Center
P. O. Box 997343
Pago Pago, AS 96799
phone: (684) 633-1412
fax: (684) 633-1839

Imagine trying to tell a patient that they have cancer. However, in this particular incidence, the word cancer has little meaning. That is one of the problems researchers at the American Samoa Community Cancer Network (ASCCN) experienced trying to translate scientific information from English to Samoan for the roughly 68,000 residents of the Territory of American Samoa. With cancer being the second leading cause of death among the Samoa population the language disconnect that existed proved most difficult.

According to Dr. Victor Tofaeono, PI for the ASCCN, “throughout the history of Samoa, its people have usually relied on the passage of information by word of mouth.” However, this has created a lack of information on how the Samoans practiced medicine, adding to the shroud of mystery surrounding disease and healing. He added that “cancer still is poorly understood by the majority of Samoans.” He hopes that by correcting the lack of awareness with respect to basic scientific communication, many of the related health disparities will also be eliminated.

As a member of the Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities Community Networks Program, ASCCN’s goals are to reduce cancer incidence and mortality in the U.S. Territory of American Samoa. Dr. Tofaeono and his research partners are working to establish a sustainable cancer disparities research program using Community-based Participatory Research. This program will (1) promote cancer awareness within the American Samoan communities; and (2) initiate a cancer research and training program to develop indigenous Samoan researchers.

A disparity identified by the Samoan academic community, and one that the ASCCN aims to address through a partnership with the American Samoa Community College and Samoan Studies Institute, is the lack of published research conducted by Samoans, about Samoans. Within American Samoa, the Samoan Studies Institute (SSI) is a part of the Community College, which is the only Institute of Higher Learning in American Samoa. By creating a formal partnership between the ASCCN and the SSI, the researchers will be able to address the need— identified through a needs assessment conducted by the ASCCN—for training of indigenous American Samoans in the areas of cancer, cancer health disparities research, and Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR).

To ensure partnership and training, a check in the amount of $57,000 was presented to the Samoan Studies Institute (SSI). Dr. Tofaeono said he hopes through this partnership that the projects currently underway, in addition to future programs “will help close the gap between the latest discoveries in the field of cancer research and the treatment options for patients here in American Samoa.” He went on to explain the need for the partnership stems from a disparity in “having no researchers of indigenous origin on the island in American Samoa”. Therefore, the lack of indigenous role models in the area of cancer research in American Samoa is a major disparity that we aim to address through our partnership with the SSI. In addition, he expressed that he “hopes the relationship with the college will help eliminate that disparity.”

Together, the two organizations have already published a book, “Bilingual Guide to Understanding Cancer-Related Terminologies in English and Samoan,” translating medical and cancer related terms from English into Samoan. SSI Director Okenaisa Fauolo said “This gives students the opportunity to try to apply Samoan language concepts to complex medical terms.”

The donation, which occurred in March, has already developed courses for students; one such course is a research project into traditional Samoan medical practices. Dr. Tofaeono hopes by offering courses that are taught in the college, students may gain an interest in research in the biological field, including cancers; this will help them reach their goal to foster and facilitate cancer education programs that will increase cancer awareness and understanding among American Samoans.

Updated: 05/15/13