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Linda Burhansstipanov

Linda Burhansstipanov, PhD

The Creator has a path for all of us, but sometimes it’s hard to find and navigate that path. Mine was full of obstacles, twists, and turns. Growing up, it was impossible for me to imagine the beautiful and peaceful life I lead today.
As a child, I was trapped in a caustic household, enduring endless violence and hardship. My father hit me so much that I ceased to feel the pain. My mother lived in constant fear. My brother fell into hard drugs. I didn’t believe that a loving family was possible. I remember sleeping over at a friend’s house and hiding in their hallway closet, listening. I thought their good behavior and tranquil household must be an act they put on for visitors because it was so vastly different from my “normal” experience. But it wasn’t an act at all—I just lived in chaos.
As awful as my experience was, my father’s violence molded me into a strong and resilient woman. I knew that no situation would ever compare to what he put me through. My mother didn’t have an education and was too poor to leave my father. When I was in fourth grade, my mother told me, “If you stay in school, Linda, you won’t ever have to put up with living like this.” I was determined to forge a path to freedom, and I knew excelling in school and having a solid career would take me there.
After finishing high school, I went to California State University, Long Beach (CSULB), to study health sciences—a subject that was not only interesting to me, but that would also allow me to do meaningful work in the world. At the time, I had never dreamed I would pursue higher education all the way to a PhD level. And I surely hadn’t dreamed I would be educating Indian communities across the country! The immediate struggles along my path were too great for me to imagine the future. But I know now that hardship was worth it.
CSULB had the lowest tuition in the area and was close to home, but I refused to live in my childhood house. During my undergraduate years, I had to work four jobs just to support myself. I did everything from working at Taco Bell to coaching gymnastics. None of them had decent salaries, but collectively they helped me get through.
During that time, my life path took an amazing twist: my mother finally left my father and remarried—to a man who was the opposite of all that my biological father embodied. My stepfather was a wonderful, warm, and loving presence in my life. He was kind and considerate, loved me unconditionally, and accepted me for who I was. He was an incredible role model who allowed me to trust and feel comfortable around men. I have him to thank for my successful marriage today. Losing my stepfather to cancer early on in my career helped guide my path to doing cancer research, education, and prevention in underserved communities—a path I was already well on my way to traveling.
After finishing my undergraduate degree, I applied for a health sciences master’s program at the University of California, Los Angeles. I was getting very tired of student life, particularly because of all my side jobs, so I firmly set my mind on finishing graduate school as quickly as possible. I worked incessantly, finishing my master’s in one year and then continuing on to earn a doctorate in public health (DrPH), which I finished in 1974 after only two years.
While I was completing my MS, I was recruited to teach health sciences at CSULB and continued teaching there during and after my doctoral studies. Fifteen years later, I was a fully tenured professor and had taught everything on the health sciences curriculum. I had an amazing array of students there and a wonderful experience as a teacher—a career I might have continued if new opportunities hadn’t branched my path yet again.
While teaching, I was also working at an American Indian health clinic in Compton, one of the first urban American Indian clinics. We had young women coming in with cervical cancer but we didn’t know why they were getting sick. We received a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to develop background surveys that would help us learn what might lead to cervical cancer in young women. The grant also provided support for developing a needs assessment for cervical cancer intervention. During this time, I was recruited by the NIH to create their Native American Cancer Research Program at the National Cancer Institute.
I retired from Long Beach and stayed at the NIH for two years as an IPA and then two years as a cancer expert. Working at NIH was a great experience for learning how the institutes work, but I spent most of my days doing research. I missed teaching and working with people. (And my partner was still back in the West.) I was recruited for and got a job in Denver working for the AMC Cancer Research Center. While it was a good job that allowed me to work with the Denver Indian Center, I began to realize how much I needed to start my own nonprofit.
After four years with AMC of dedicated work and grant writing, I founded the Native American Cancer Initiatives, Incorporated (a small for-profit business). Then in 1999, I started Native American Cancer Research Corporation (NACR), a nonprofit corporation. We work to reduce cancer incidence and to increase survival among Native Americans by supporting culturally competent cancer prevention, health screening, education, training, and research. Some days, I drive down to the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless to do cancer education workshops for the homeless. Other days I might travel to American Indian communities to educate people about cancer—what it is, how they can deal with it—with hopes of reducing the stigma about it. We also arrange culturally relevant genetic education workshops, called GENA® (Genetic Education of Native Americans) at reservations and academic conferences throughout the country, including the annual SACNAS National Conference. Other days I work from the home office where I am a phone queen, with literally eight hours straight of conference calls or webinars. Some of our projects accomplish simpler, but equally important, tasks like providing transportation from clients’ homes to their cancer treatment centers or providing them with education about cancer programs, support groups, and treatments that might be available to them. For others, our programs provide trained Native Patient Navigators to help patients and their families through the cancer experience. Our work with cancer survivors is among the most rewarding work I have ever done.
For a long time my husband and I worked out of our home in Pine, Colorado. As the nonprofit grew, we built an addition. We also rented a small office in Denver beginning in 2003. Half of our home is offices and conference rooms. Finally in 2007, NACR grew enough that I could hire a full-time executive director, Dr. Brenda Seals (Eastern Band Cherokee).
I love my life with my husband; I love my work with NACR and the challenges and adventures that each new day brings. While we’ve never had children, we’ve raised many students during the 18 years I worked at CSULB. We frequently had two to three students living with us at any given time, some from my teaching years, other whom I’ve met while traveling or at conferences. One student even stayed with us for eight years! I know what it’s like to struggle and face adversity, and we do what we can to help these young people and ease them along their personal and professional paths. No matter how great the challenge, it’s possible to rise above it and do important and meaningful work in this world. Native American communities in particular need young professionals who understand our communities. Their fresh innovative minds will help us find better and more culturally sensitive treatments and cures, which we so greatly need.