Community works with elders to learn traditional remedies for cancer patients

A group of volunteers in Fort Good Hope, N.W.T., are learning how to make traditional remedies to help cancer patients in town.

‘When you take care of the land, the land will also take care of you,’ says Melinda Laboucan

Spruce buds are boiled for the liquid which is used to relieve colds, sore throats, coughing and chest ailments. The longer it boils the more potent it is. (Submitted by Melinda Laboucan)

Melinda Laboucan lost her mother to cancer a few years ago.

Today, she's out on the land with elders collecting spruce gum, buds and chaga mushrooms to help cancer patients in her community find traditional remedies.

"I lost my mom back in 2011 ... and seeing how other people had stepped out to come support us, I've always wanted to return that favour back," said Laboucan, community cancer co-ordinator for Goba in Fort Good Hope, N.W.T.

Goba is a group of volunteers who aim to raise awareness and support for those with cancer. One of the group's priorities is to promote traditional medicine, passed down for centuries.
Elders teaching community members how to pick new spruce buds for traditional remedies. (Submitted by Melinda Laboucan)

"[It's] lots of fun, lots of laughter," said Laboucan about learning from the elders. "They like to teach and they like to share their knowledge."

But the elders teach more than just remedies.

It's very, very powerful. And science is now starting to figure out why.- Roger Plouffe

"Before we pick it, the elders mentioned to us that we have to make an offering to the land," Laboucan said.

She said they would offer the land tobacco, food, tea or coffee — or anything they have — to respect and honour it.

"When you take care of the land, the land will also take care of you."

The elders brought the group back to the kitchen and taught them how to prepare the medicine.

Salves and teas

The two main ingredients the elders use on cancer patients are chaga mushrooms and spruce.

Spruce gum is turned into a salve or cream and is used to treat cuts, burns, and discomfort on the skin — especially after radiation treatment.

"It's very good for keeping the burns from getting any more worse, and to soothe the pain," said Roger Plouffe, a member of Goba who has a background in science.

Spruce buds are boiled to make a potent liquid that can treat coughs, colds and sore throats. 

Plouffe said chaga mushrooms are typically found on birch trees. He said the ones grown in the North are a better quality than mushrooms grown in warmer temperatures.

Chaga mushrooms, left, are a powerful ingredient to treat cancer patients. (Submitted by Melinda Laboucan)

They're used on cancer patients to reduce swelling and to build up the immune system. Elders make tea from the mushrooms, "but must not boil the water" because it kills much of the benefits. Chaga can also help build appetite for patients, said Plouffe.

Because the remedies are natural, they don't seem to have side effects, said Plouffe. "Unless you take too much of them, then usually you get diarrhea."

'Doctors amazed'

"I've seen what the medicine can do. It is absolutely amazing," said Plouffe, who recalled helping an individual with an infection on their hands. It was healed the next day, after applying spruce gum salve on them.

Elders and community members from Fort Good Hope, N.W.T., are back in the kitchen to learn how to make traditional remedies. (Submitted by Melinda Laboucan)

"The doctors were amazed," said Plouffe. "It's very, very powerful. And science is now starting to figure out why."

Plouffe said doctors and nurses in the community are respectful of the medicine of the land, and are working together with Goba to treat patients.

Plouffe is currently documenting the remedies, stories and techniques. The group hopes to publish it for the public in the future.

With files from Joanne Stassen, Juanita Taylor