FARMINGTON — Anyone who knows Nellie Sandoval knows that she loves Las Vegas. Every chance she gets, the Farmington woman loads a car up with her family and heads to Sin City for the food and entertainment.

Next month, Sandoval will get a free trip to Las Vegas, where she will attend the Navigation and Survivorship Conference with five other finalists for the Hero of Hope Patient Award.

The award "seeks to honor individuals who are living with cancer and who are inspiring others through their contributions to their communities, by serving as a role model to other cancer patients and survivors or by exuding extraordinary spirit, grace and optimism in the face of adversity," according to a press release from the Academy of Oncology Nurse and Patient Navigators, which awards the honor.

Sandoval will join Cindy Lovelace of Nashville, Tenn., Jerlean Taylor of Baltimore, Jerry Parins of Green Bay, Wisc., Maryann Wahmann of New York City and Seth Grumet of Marlboro, N.J., as nominees for the annual award.

Sandoval was nominated by Fran Robinson, a cancer navigator at San Juan Regional Medical Center, in large part for her work in breast cancer awareness and education among Navajo women.

A press release mentions her work as a support group facilitator and a leader in the Reach to Recovery program through the American Cancer Society, as well as her work with the San Juan Medical Foundation and the Partnership for Native American Cancer Prevention between Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona.

"What an honor," Sandoval said. "But I didn’t do anything for me. I didn’t want to see other Navajo women, my Navajo sisters, die."

Sandoval was diagnosed with cancer in her left breast in 1989 after a routine self-exam and after insisting on a biopsy. She was later diagnosed with breast cancer in her right side in 1996. She considers herself a 28-year cancer survivor.

But it wasn’t enough for Sandoval to just survive. She began working with the Reach to Recovery program to help other women newly diagnosed with breast cancer.

Soon she began to notice a trend. Since she spoke Navajo, many of her patient referrals were Navajo women and many went on to succumb to their cancer.

When Sandoval and Robinson began to examine the problem, they realized it was because many Navajo women who were being diagnosed with breast cancer were diagnosed at stage 3 or stage 4.

So the duo hit the road, driving more than 1,000 miles to spread the word about self-exams, early detection and cancer treatments to Navajo communities. They handed out fliers, bought billboards, paid for radio and television advertisements, created three videos in Navajo, gave presentations and attended conferences.

"It was a media blitz," Sandoval said. "We focused on early detection because the sooner women get in for help, the better their chances for survival. And what we found a few years later was statistically we could see Navajo women were still getting diagnosed, but they were surviving. So that told us, what we were doing was working. Women were getting in and getting their questions answered and getting the treatment they needed."

But it wasn’t always easy.

Sandoval was met with resistance by Navajo elders who valued tradition.

"In the Navajo way, you aren’t supposed to touch yourself, but how are women supposed to feel a tumor? In a self-exam, you aren’t touching yourself in a sexual way," Sandoval explained. "Also in the Navajo way, you aren’t supposed to talk about cancer because it’s almost as if you are wishing it on yourself or on someone. But that’s not true in my case. I’m talking about cancer so women can be informed, so they know what to do and so they can survive and they can live."

A $1,000 award will go to the Hero of Hope Patient Award winner’s charity of choice, and Sandoval has already designated San Juan Medical Foundation as her charity.

"Our medical community here is so knowledgeable and so caring. I want that money to stay in San Juan County with these people," Sandoval said.

Voting for the award is taking place at through Nov. 1. The winner of the Hero of Hope award will be announced Nov. 19.

“Win or lose, at least I’m in Vegas,” Sandoval said.

Renee Lucero is a freelancer writer for The Daily Times.

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