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In her battle against cancer, she's turning to traditional healing alongside western medicine

Ashley Sloan-Hunter is using western and traditional medicine to treat two kinds of pain — one caused by cancer and one caused by childhood trauma.

Ashley Sloan-Hunter sees a link between her colon cancer and childhood trauma

Ashley Sloan-Hunter has stage 4 cancer. She's moving through her pain with the help of western and Indigenous medicine. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

Ashley Sloan-Hunter felt like her insides were tearing in two, but no one would listen.

She went to a walk-in clinic, then the emergency room several times, desperate for reprieve from extreme bloating and rectal bleeding. Sloan-Hunter said doctors prescribed her pain medications, saying the agony could be a symptom of hemorrhoids, or maybe Crohn's disease.

She said her pain wasn't taken seriously until a doctor at the University of Alberta Hospital performed an endoscopy in May of 2018. It revealed a fist-sized tumour blocking her colon.

"My large intestine was just ripping," Sloan-Hunter said. "Every single day, it was just ripping more and more."

She was rushed into surgery and came out with a temporary ileostomy bag, as most of her colon had been removed. The tumour was gone, but for the Cree woman from Goodfish Lake, Alta., her cancer journey had just begun.

Watch: Sloan-Hunter talks about how she connected with her traditions.

Ashley Sloan-Hunter is battling cancer, but she's using traditional healing along with western medicine in her journey. 3:33

Soon after surgery, she was sick with an infection, vomiting and struggling to walk. Sloan-Hunter said hospital staff had a hard time getting the infection under control, so she called on a Cree medicine woman from Sweetgrass First Nation in Saskatchewan to help her.

"After she gave me some medicine, I sweated everything out. It was unbelievable," Sloan-Hunter said, noting she was discharged from the hospital just two days later.

The powerful encounter with Cree medicine was the first of many steps in an awakening healing process. 

Sloan-Hunter believes there is a link between her cancer and trauma from her childhood. Over the past year, Indigenous elders and knowledge keepers have told her there could be a connection.

Ashley Sloan-Hunter after surgery. (Ashley Sloan-Hunter)

'It came back'

After several months of recovery time and a few rounds of preventive chemotherapy, Sloan-Hunter was told the cancer was gone.

"It was like, 'Yay, we're in the clear. We're cancer-free,'" she said. "Then in May [2019], it came back, and it went from stage 2 to stage 4."

The 30-year-old's abdomen is riddled with cancer.

"[The doctors] wanted to just cut me up and take everything out, and then I would have a permanent [ileostomy] bag," she said. "I really detested that and I really didn't want to do that. That's when I started looking elsewhere."

She turned to traditional medicine and ceremony after Canada's healthcare system left her feeling hopeless.

"To me, [doctors] were kind of just telling me that story of, 'You're going to die, and you're going to die fast," she said.

Now, she's pairing western medicine with Indigenous healing methods to help treat the cancer, as well as deep-rooted emotional trauma.

'I never experienced anything like that before'

Sloan-Hunter says she was sexually assaulted at age three and again when she was 15. Years later, she got sick at the same time the youngest of her two sons turned three.

"That type of trauma, it has to go somewhere ... for me, it went deep. It went deep into my colon," she said. "My son turning three triggered it. It woke it up."

Ashley Sloan-Hunter with her husband Colten Sloan and sons Kashtin and Kaleb. (Ashley Sloan-Hunter)

Other major moments in her cancer journey have coincided with events tied to her childhood trauma, she said. When the cancer came back in May, Sloan-Hunter said she had just found out one of her friends was a sexual predator.

"Our spirit, our body, our emotions and our mind — they're not separate. They're all connected," she said.

In 1998, one of the largest studies of its kind found a relationship between childhood trauma and physical, behavioural and social problems in adulthood.

The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study showed childhood trauma can increase the risk of a wide range of chronic diseases, including cancer and heart disease.

Western medicine tends to be very physical in nature — dealing with a physical illness and trying to treat that illness.-Dr. Shannon McDonald, First Nations Health Authority

Dr. Shannon McDonald, a Métis Anishinaabe doctor based on Vancouver Island, said it's difficult to make a direct scientific connection between a traumatic event and physical illness.

But she said many people benefit from the holistic approach of traditional medicine.

Sloan-Hunter said ceremony helps her heal the pain from her past. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

"Western medicine tends to be very physical in nature — dealing with a physical illness and trying to treat that illness," said McDonald, deputy chief medical officer for British Columbia's First Nations Health Authority.

"What we find quite often is that while people are more than willing to get what they can out of western medicine, they really feel that there is something missing for them in their healing journey," she said.

"And they look for that within traditional medicine with prayer, with ceremony and being surrounded by family and supporters."

Sloan-Hunter said ceremony has been crucial for healing pain from her past that still lingers. She recalled a pivotal moment shortly after the cancer came back, when she took part in a Yuwipi ceremony — a Lakota healing ceremony — in her home reserve at Goodfish Lake, Alta.

Sloan-Hunter said she received messages that she was going to live, and connected with her late grandmother's spirit, who was also a sexual abuse survivor.

"She never got to [heal] in this world, so being able to give her that, it was wonderful," Sloan-Hunter said, smiling through tears.

"I never experienced anything like that before — to be able to truly connect to spirit — ever in my life. It's one of those moments [where] even the most non-believer will become a believer."

Making space for other forms of knowledge

In August, Sloan-Hunter got test results that showed the tumours hadn't grown or regressed.

She's hoping to change that by pairing chemotherapy with traditional medicine, though the treatments take a toll. There are days when she's so tired and nauseous that getting out of bed feels like climbing a mountain.

"But I'm also living really grateful because of our … ceremonial ways of living," she said. "That's where I find my strength."

Ashley Sloan-Hunter's family shaved their heads as a show of support after she lost her hair from chemotherapy. (Ashley Sloan-Hunter)

Sloan-Hunter recently completed an arts degree at MacEwan University in Edmonton. She has been researching the intersection between disease and deep-rooted emotional trauma, using her own experience and conversations with knowledge keepers to inform the research.

"[That intersection] is a predominant knowing, almost. But that colonial narrative is so loud … that it sort of overshadows the possibility that that could even be a correlation at all," she said.

Her independent study examines the western medical system from a patient perspective, contrasting it with Indigenous ways of knowing.

"It's not that I'm trying to discredit western knowledge systems, rather incorporate and make space for other forms of knowledge as well."

Her goal isn't to make a blanket claim about trauma causing cancer, but to highlight a more holistic understanding of the connection between mind, body and spirit.

"I remember growing up being told, you know, 'Don't hold it in. You're going to get yourself sick,'" she said.

Despite what practitioners of western medicine have told her about her prognosis, Sloan-Hunter continues to push forward.

She got married in December, and wants to be around to see her sons do the same in the coming decades. She still hits the gym, and plans to continue her research with a master's degree.

The journey has undoubtedly been challenging, but Sloan-Hunter said she's grateful for what she's learned along the way.

"We have ways to help ourselves," she said. "We have spaces and places to go for healing, and I'm living proof."

Despite having stage 4 cancer, Ashley Sloan-Hunter still hits the gym when she feels up to it. (Ashley Sloan-Hunter)

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