Rate of breast cancer deaths higher for Aboriginals

Sebastian Neuweiler, GERALDTON GUARDIANGeraldton Guardian
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New figures reveal Aboriginal women are more likely to die from breast cancer than their non-indigenous counterparts, but a Mid West cancer education officer says Aboriginality may not always be documented at diagnosis or death.

Last week Cancer Australia released new figures suggesting Aboriginal women were 14 per cent more likely to die from breast cancer than non-indigenous women, despite being less likely to be diagnosed with the disease.

The Cancer Australia report said a lack of awareness about symptoms, low treatment completion rates and the need for culturally appropriate information and support all contributed to the gap.

Cancer Australia chief executive Helen Zorbas said only 36 per cent of Indigenous women participated in in breast screenings, compared with 55 per cent of non-indigenous women.

“They may not visit a doctor when they notice a change in their breasts and as a result breast cancer may be more advanced at diagnosis," she said.

Cancer Council WA Mid West education officer Megan Upchurch said it was important to note however, that Aboriginality was not always recorded during cancer diagnosis or death.

“There were 23 cases of breast cancer as an annual average from 2009-13 and five average deaths per year in the whole of WA,” she said.

“... the individual plays a vital role in early detection but the system itself also has a strong influence on the outcome — such as access to immediate treatment close to home.”

A 2011 community report on research in Aboriginal people’s views about cancer and experiences of cancer care in WA found some Aboriginal people in WA incorrectly believed that cancer was a terminal illness or death sentence.

“A fear about cancer means people may prefer to not know,” it said.

“They may avoid going to the doctor when they notice symptoms, or avoid cancer screening when they are well for fear of finding they have cancer.

“Personal stories of a person’s bad experiences with the health system are shared in the community, and so people may decide not to have a check-up when they notice something wrong, or not to have treatment for cancer.”

Ms Upchurch said the community report also highlighted sharing information and education as being the key to better outcomes.

“It said as well as getting more information in the community about preventing cancer and early diagnosis, and sharing more positive stories about treatment and recovery in Aboriginal communities, support systems such as transport, accommodation and hospital liaison services are of importance,” she said.

“The health system, including things like transfer of care to and from a community, training doctors and other health staff to be sensitive to Aboriginal needs, ensuring the hospital environment is culturally secure, was also recommended.”

Following the release of the new figures, Cancer Australia has released a handbook which would provide evidence-based information for indigenous health workers to spread awareness in communities.

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