Utahns are known for their generous spirit and devotion to service. And we wrote about six local Samaritans who are taking their skills across the globe to offer comfort and care in our December issue, on stands now. Working on Native American reservations to spread knowledge on medical issues, Phyllis Pettit Nassi is one of those altruistic Utahns.

Phyllis Pettit Nassi Mission: Educating Native American populations about cancer and finding high-quality and culturally sensitive medical care. Areas of Operation: Across Utah and 17 other states, including Idaho, New Mexico, Montana, Arizona, Wyoming and Alaska.

What she does:

Education is power, and Phyllis Pettit Nassi is focused on making the nation’s Native American populations as strong as possible.

For the last decade, Nassi—who is enrolled in the Otoe-Missoria Tribe and is a member of the Cherokee Nation—has led the Huntsman Cancer Institute’s Native American Outreach Program and taken major steps in educating tribes from Las Vegas to Anchorage about cancer and prevention.

“Native Americans have the poorest cancer survival rate of all races,” says Nassi, who spends the better part of her year traveling to far-flung corners of the West to work with tribal communities. “Cancer was not part of our world, and many tribes have no name for it.”

That, Nassi says, is exactly the problem. Not knowing about cancer fosters misconceptions and delays diagnoses and treatment. “I [recently] met with a woman with breast cancer, [and] her community has shunned her and [believes] she's contagious,” Nassi says, noting these struggles are complicated by limited budgets, access to oncologists and other priorities. “We deal with a lot of myths, so getting people to [take measures] to reduce risk can be difficult.”

But Nassi’s team of two can’t simply begin the education process with pamphlets and PowerPoint presentations.

“I don’t do anything without hearing their voice first,” she says, noting that building trust can take from a few weeks to well over a year. “I don’t even mention cancer. I’ll talk about [general] health and nutrition.” During the ramp-up period, Nassi identifies the concerns and builds a curriculum around those needs. She’ll discuss ways to reduce risk, how to get screened and symptoms. These sessions range from just a few participants to fairs with more than 25,000 attendees.

Back at home, Nassi and program coordinator Lynne Hall work as liaisons, orchestrating relationships with doctors in the Indian Health Centers and at the institute. It’s slow and steady work and requires countless hours lobbying in Washington, D.C., and attending a multitude of conferences. But the more people reached, the broader the impact. “It’s not just education and knowledge. It’s keeping true to our culture that is going to help us,” Nassi says. “If I can change one person, I change a family. That family changes the way that tribe interacts. All it takes is one person.”

By the numbers

7 Native American tribes in Utah 800,000 Individual contacts made since the program began 250,000 miles traveled in 10 years 15 weeks spent on the road in one stretch 9 national boards and associations of which Nassi is a member

How to help

Donate money, skills and time through the Huntsman Cancer Foundation, which funds the institute’s mission of research, education and treatment. For more info, visit huntsmancancerfoundation.org or call 801-584-5800.