Cancer is one of the most serious health threats affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their second leading cause of death.
Research from The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has found that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are 1.1 times as likely to be diagnosed with cancer as non-Indigenous Australians (2009-13 figures) and have lower five-year relative survival compared with non-Indigenous Australians (2007-14 figures).
Yet most cancer information campaigns and educational materials are not designed for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander audience and do not explicitly involve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in their development.
This is why the new Yarn for Life campaign from Cancer Australia is so important. It is the first national cancer awareness campaign developed for and by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
In the post below, Professor Jacinta Elston from Monash University and Associate Professor Kelvin Kong from the University of Newcastle discuss the campaign and its role in reducing the impact of cancer on Indigenous communities.
Jacinta Elston and Kelvin Kong write:
“There is no Indigenous person who hasn’t been impacted by cancer,” Professor Jacinta Elston
Drawing on priorities identified in the Optimal Care Pathway for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with cancer released in 2018, Cancer Australia has created the first national cancer awareness campaign developed for and by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
A video from the campaign
Launched in June 2019, Yarn for Life aims to reduce the impact of cancer within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities by raising cancer awareness and encouraging and normalising discussion about the disease. The central message of Yarn for Life,‘it’s okay to talk about cancer,’ is illustrated by three personal experiences of cancer, which describe stories of courage and survivorship from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
“Cancer is a growing health problem and the second leading cause of death among Indigenous Australians who are, on average, 40 percent more likely to die from cancer than non-indigenous Australians,” said Professor Dorothy Keefe, Cancer Australia CEO.
“There is no Indigenous person who hasn’t been impacted by cancer,” says Professor Jacinta Elston, Pro Vice Chancellor (Indigenous) at Monash University and Chair of the Cancer Australia Leadership Group on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cancer Control.
When diagnosed with cancer 15 years ago, Professor Elston did what she’d always done; made the best of a bad situation. “As I’d seen women in my family do throughout my life, I focused on the needs of my family. I didn’t focus on myself.”
In the years that followed her diagnosis, Jacinta shared her journey with friends and family, which she recognises isn’t typical. “When you’re newly diagnosed with cancer is when we should talk about it. It’s so overwhelming. Yarning it through can help.”
During treatment, what she did not realise was the toll her diagnosis was taking on her family, particularly her 7 year-old daughter. Sometime after Professor Elston had lost her hair from chemotherapy treatments, her daughter confided in her that she was worried about losing her own hair. Yarning it through and seeking advice helped dispel her fear, alleviate her anxiety and normalise the situation.
Australia’s first Indigenous surgeon Associate Professor Kelvin Kong of the University of Newcastle, said, “Yarn for Life seeks to empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to participate in screening programs, discuss cancer with their doctor or health care worker openly, and if cancer is diagnosed, complete their cancer treatment.”
Associate Professor Kong said it was also important for health services to support better outcomes for Indigenous patients by being culturally aware.
“For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, health and connection to land, culture community and identity are intrinsically linked. Optimal care that is respectful of, and responsive to, the cultural preferences, sensitivities, needs and values of patients, is critical to good health care outcomes. It is more than being culturally sensitive. It is engaging in health in a meaningful manner, not one thrust upon the community.”
Kong continued, “In my own practice I have seen the positive effect conversation can have on early diagnosis. I have patients who have shared their symptoms with family, who then encouraged them to seek medical attention. Without that encouragement, they might not have such good outcomes.”
“We need to reduce the gap in cancer incidence and outcomes and Yarn for Life is a step in the right direction in raising awareness about cancer and the importance of early detection,” said Associate Professor Kong.
‘Shame and fear can be one of our biggest barriers to seeking medical advice and treatment,” said Professor Elston. “Yarn for Life aims to make talking about cancer normal for our people, and to encourage early detection of the disease. It also emphasises the value of culturally appropriate and respectful support along the patient journey.”
“Healthcare that is patient-focused and that is respectful of, and responsive to, the preferences, needs and values of patients, is critical to good cancer care outcomes,” stated Professor Keefe.
The Optimal Care Pathway for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with cancer provides health services and health professionals across all sectors in Australia with principles and guidance to ensure that care is responsive to the needs of Indigenous Australians.
“Cancer Australia is calling on health professionals and health services involved in the delivery of cancer care at every level to read, use, adopt and embed the Optimal Care Pathway for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with cancer into their practice,” said Professor Keefe.
The Optimal Care Pathway, Quick Reference Guide and Consumer Guides can be found at www.canceraustralia.gov.au.
Yarn for Life is designed to be shared with friends, family and the community online, on social media, to carry on the Yarn for Life conversation. Additional resources include a television commercial and radio spots.
“Things are changing for the better, which is good for our mob,“ says Professor Elston.
Professor Jacinta Elston is the Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous), Monash University and Associate Professor Kelvin Kong is from the University of Newcastle
A longer video from the campaign