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Fighting Cancer Among The Q’eqchi’

After years spent fighting for the rights of native Guatemalans, Liza Grandia is applying an anthropologist's skillset to her own cancer.

Guatemala’s second largest indigenous group, the Q’eqchi’, are a justifiably proud people. Their traditional lands constitute the only Mayan territory never conquered by the Spanish. Q’eqchi’, also the name of their language, is the most widely spoken Mayan tongue in Guatemala.

Liza Grandia today.

Liza Grandia, an American anthropologist, first fell in love with Q’eqchi’ culture in 1993 during her undergraduate studies at Yale. Going on to live with a a Q’eqchi’ family in Guatemala for four years, she returned to write her dissertation, staying for another three years.

Living with the Q’eqchi’ is not an easy lifestyle. “Petén, Guatemala is a pretty rough place to work — heat, mosquitoes, parasites galore, dust, poor roads, bad water, and little to no sanitation,” says Grandia. But she took it in stride, because she believed her work, focusing on environmental justice and agricultural conflict, was important. While there, she even helped assist the Q’eqchi’  defend themselves from land grabs triggered by a World Bank loan.

I was horrified that no one was working on these issues.

Nine years ago, after returning to the United States after seven years of living in rural Guatemala, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lymphoma. Grandia believes that the cancer likely grew out of her long term exposure to pesticides and other toxic contaminants found around the villages she lived in–several large resource extraction projects operated nearby.

Though there is no official registry of such data, Grandia believes that chemical exposure among the Q’eqchi’ is likely high. Grandia herself kept a detailed record of the pesticides she was exposed to. “I was interested because I was horrified that no one was working on these issues,” she says.

The diagnosis, which effectively ended Grandia’s career as a field researcher, set her on an intellectual journey investigating this issue: how chemical exposure might be quietly poisoning us. She was surprised to find that environmental factors were generally not considered in cancer diagnoses. When she informed multiple oncologists about her likely contaminations in Guatemala they were simply “not interested in the information,” she says. Her concerns have carried on into her new academic research.

“I’m interested in making that loop, the complete circle of poison back to our lives, the ways in which we inadvertently poison ourselves.”

Earlier last month Grandia was awarded a Mellon Foundation grant for $270,000 to study toxicology and environmental epidemiology at the University of California, Davis, where she is director of the Indigenous Research Center of the Americas. “I’m interested in making that loop, the complete circle of poison back to our lives, the ways in which we inadvertently poison ourselves,” she says. She also continues to work remotely with the Q’eqchi’ on a number of environmental legal cases as an expert witness.

Folks spoke with Grandia to find out more.

Much of your current work was influenced by your own medical situation. Can you please take us back to your diagnosis?

I was diagnosed with a very aggressive lymphoma the day before my 35th birthday. I had a lump spreading on the top of my chest through my collar bone that grew from zero to ten centimeters in about a month. It was actually my first year as a professor. I was in my first tenure track job and right at the beginning of the second semester. Because the cancer was so aggressive either the chemotherapy would work or I had about two months, according to the oncologist. I haven’t really led an academic life outside of that reality.

That occurred in 2008. There hadn’t been a six month period between 1993 and 2008 that I hadn’t spent time in Guatemala. Sometimes it would be two or three years on end. So that was an abrupt shift for me to not be able to go to Guatemala for the better part of five years.

What first drew you to anthropology and why does it drive you? Why did you start focusing on the Q’eqchi’?  

I was drawn to anthropology by the practicing anthropologists I met when I first went to Guatemala in 1993.  I liked the kinds of questions they asked.  They always seemed to have a quirky angle on whatever the proverbial elephant was in any given meeting room. That said, I did what no student should ever do: apply to graduate school in a field in which you’ve only taken one introductory class. Luckily for me, anthropology is my life’s calling and I landed at UC-Berkeley with the best possible mentor in the field, Dr. Laura Nader.

I was drawn to anthropology as a discipline for understanding problems of corporate globalization because I felt more than any other social science it had genuinely and honestly wrestled with its colonial past.

I was drawn to anthropology… because I felt more than any other social science it had genuinely and honestly wrestled with its colonial past.

In the four years I spent in Guatemala before graduate school, I had lived with a Q’eqchi’ family, worked in Q’eqchi’ communities, but had not yet learned the language.  For my dissertation work, I committed to this and was rewarded with so many new understandings of Q’eqchi’ lifeways and worldview. This is a continually deepening process. Decades later, Q’eqchi’ healing and ceremony is helping me understand what I am meant to do as anthropologist.

In Maya cosmovision, a good life is one in which a person finds and fills her destiny. When you get a life-threatening illness like cancer, a person tends to question everything. What’s the point of all that suffering?  What am I going to make of that experience?  It’s taken me almost a decade to understand my path forward.

Has studying the way other cultures approach illness helped you in any way handle your own?

Absolutely. I never even considered putting all my eggs in the allopathic basket.  Chinese medicine (acupuncture and qigong) were central to my recovery.  The Mesoamerican tradition of sauna has been the cornerstone of my healing of chemical sensitivities. That said, it’s also a healing modality of Europe. You find many similar healing modalities that arise in disparate places at different times. Some old Maya healers practice a kind of acupuncture with sharpened bones, and they use very similar points to Chinese doctors. So I read copiously across many medical traditions and look for commonalities or comparable success stories.

What was your initial healing process like?

I had just moved to a new town, Worcester, MA. I didn’t really have a network of support, didn’t know where to go for treatment. From the very beginning I felt that the best way to cure myself was to be very public about my cancer. Some people take it very privately, like a scourge on themselves. But I never blamed myself. I sent out an email to 300 people asking ‘What do I do?’ Through that I pieced together connections to very good doctors.

I had long been an activist and worked with social movements. I’m very good at organizing on behalf of others but I’d never actually organized for myself. I took this as ‘How do I connect the people I know and use my intellectual firepower to heal myself?’ I wasn’t going to put all my eggs in one basket. I did chemo and radiation because it was a very acute cancer, but I also tapped into a lot of alternative therapies.

From the very beginning I felt that the best way to cure myself was to be very public about my cancer.

My original surgeon in Worcester wanted to try to cut out the tumor. I found out later that surgery would have killed me because it would have delayed the chemo and caused the cancer to spread. The night before the surgery a friend convinced me not to go. I called the hospital and cancelled. The doctor actually threatened me and said if I didn’t go through with the surgery I’d never be allowed back in that hospital again. I didn’t have health insurance to any other hospital so it was a leap of faith at that point. I had not seen any other specialists. Happily I found another oncologist. For six months I underwent chemo and radiation. I have been in remission ever since.
What kind of alternative medicines did you tackle during your recovery? Did you feel more open minded about such treatments because of your training as an anthropologist?

Grandia during chemotherapy.

I mentioned saunas above. Healing is multi-layered and what works for one person at one time may not work for another. To be honest, I wasted a lot of money on supplements, though a few have been helpful. The most healing things have been the least expensive, and good, organic whole food is medicine in itself. Qigong was the cornerstone of my recovery from cancer and gave me an understanding of how to induce a relaxation response or shift the autonomic nervous system from sympathetic to parasympathetic state. When I fell ill with chemical sensitivity, for awhile, I focused heavily on detoxing and replenishing minerals. Then I worked on my lymphatic system and found old-fashioned castor oil packs and dry brushing to be transformative. I worked with western doctors to address glutathione deficiencies — glutathione is a master antioxidant and chemical exposures can deplete your store of them. I’ve always had a healthy diet, but I started learning about the brain-gut connection and probiotic foods and drinks made a difference in my cognitive function. Then I started learning about the limbic system and how to condition the amygdala not to go into flight-or-fight response so much. That is very much a work in process.

What has been your life been like in remission and how did your diagnosis change your academic and activist work?

Over the last nine years I haven’t gone six months without having a terrifying cancer relapse scare. It’s over but it’s never over. You never have a normal headache as a cancer survivor. One can never accuse a cancer survivor of hypochondria.

Five years ago I moved here to UC Davis. Given that I was in questionable environmental circumstances before the diagnosis it definitely caused me to reflect on the questionable long term exposure over a lifetime.

It’s over but it’s never over. You never have a normal headache as a cancer survivor.

What cancer researchers are finding is what they call a multi-hit model of cancer. The prior imagination of cancer was that there was this one thing that gave it to you, like asbestos or smoking gave you lung cancer. Increasingly it appears that many of the genetic transformations and things that happen at the cellular level which impair the body’s ability to repair itself can come from something that occurs over many, many steps. In fact the oncologist told me right away that because the cancer I had was so particularly aggressive, the mutation it had would have required a series of things to have gone wrong.

Is that when you made the link with Guatemala?

In my field work in Guatemala I was working with farming families. I was worried about the pesticides being used so I had been tracking them. I had a list of all the pesticides that were being used in the villages I’d lived in. I had done some initial research on that and presented a paper in Guatemala because the international organizations were really focused on biodiversity and didn’t really care about human health–there’s not a lot of information about the dangers of pesticides in Guatemala. So I was definitely aware of the connection with pesticides when I was diagnosed.

After diagnosis, with not being able to expose myself to pesticides, which, with rural fieldwork in Guatemala, there’s no way to avoid it–they stored pesticide tanks next to the bed in the hut I was staying in, for instance– it was clear I wasn’t going to be able to do that old fashioned anthropology anymore. I was thinking about how I could reinvent my work so I could be effective from my desk. Indigenous people are online and organizing in extraordinary ways, making use of digital tools. I had been thinking a lot of how I could be of use to indigenous groups facing environmental struggles without actually having to physically go. I knew that I had to learn the language of toxicology and policy, so I applied for this Mellon New Direction fellowship.

What was the link you saw between your diagnosis and your previous agro-environmental work in Mesoamerica?  

When you do chemotherapy, some of the drugs are so toxic that the nurses have to put on partial hazmat suits–an extra full gown, masks, thick rubber gloves–to actually handle the needles and the bags that they’re putting in your IV. You’re voluntarily poisoning yourself to hopefully get well. I had been, in the lead up to chemo, revising my book for publication in Guatemala about the World Bank inducing land grabs. The key legal principle which we were trying to use to stop the expansion of this World Bank project to the rest of the Q’eqchi’ Maya territory to the south was that the Bank had expanded the project without consulting the indigenous communities. They had violated the international legal principle of “free prior informed consent.”

After my diagnosis, I began thinking about that and then thinking of the possible causes of cancer, of the chemicals that we all have in our bloodstream without our consent. People in the United States are crazy about trespassing and privacy but don’t think about the things that corporations have put into the environment and then travel inevitably into our water and bodies, full circle.

I followed all the rules, like a lot of people who get cancer. But the institutions are looking at how to blame the individual rather than the… corporate economy.

I started tracking the companies that were responsible for the two main herbicides to which I know I had been exposed: glyphosate and 24-D. Monsanto makes glyphosate and 24-D was once manufactured by Monsanto and now Dow Chemical.

This was part of my externalizing the causes of my cancer. Folks have written a lot of literature about positive healing, but it sort of implies that you gave yourself cancer by thinking negatively. In the 1970s there was thought to be a type of person who got cancer–stressed and so forth. All of the American Cancer Society literature is about behavioral causes: you drank too much, you’re overweight. But I was a vegan, organic eating, exercising person–I followed all the rules, like a lot of people who get cancer. But the institutions are looking at how to blame the individual rather than the broader structural forces of the corporate economy. That’s when I began to think of the concept of “chemical trespass”, which led me to research about everyday chemicals in our bloodstreams.

What are your key goals going forward with furthering your activism and research?

I continue to do lots of pro bono expert witness work on behalf of Q’eqchi’ peoples. I think that scientists on campus have that capacity to do pro bono science work from their laboratories, if there is interest in it, but they don’t have a social connection. So I see myself as a connector. I hope to have a system and network and way of connecting groups that are facing emergency and environmental threats. They need to be able to connect with environmental scientists to get the soil, water and air quality studies that are needed to bring their cases before a judge. They need evidence, hard core evidence. Most native and indigenous communities don’t need anthropologists anymore to document their culture–they’re doing that themselves. But they do need connections to entities of power.

Top photo of a Guatemalan woman provided by Creative Commons license by Stefano Ravalli.