Breast cancer campaign to address 'alarming' number of Arabic-speaking women not being screened

In June 2017, SBS reported on the low number of Arabic women who’ve had their recommended breast screens. New figures show more than 9,000 Arabic-speaking women have not had their recommended breast screens in the past two years.


As the CEO of the Arab Council of Australia, Randa Kattan has improved the lives of those within the Arabic community for more than 15 years.


But a few years ago, Ms Kattan’s own future prospects remained in the dark when a routine shower led to the discovery of an unexpected lump. While small in size, it was the shooting pain throughout her shoulders that prompted her to visit a doctor.


A mammogram and ultrasound diagnosed the lump as aggressive cancer, but she says early detection allowed it to be removed as quickly as it had appeared – saving her life.


“In my case it was extremely lucky that I found it when I did and extremely crucial that it is detected very early because I’m 10 years down the track and I’m around to tell the tale”, Ms Kattan told SBS World News.


Now cancer-free, Ms Kattan is sharing her personal experience with the hope of creating more success stories within her community.


She has partnered with Breast Screen NSW to lead an awareness campaign to curb the “alarming” number of women not being screened.


“I think it’s extremely important that we tell the others and when I found out the numbers and that we [Arabic women] are under-represented in screening, I found it extremely alarming”, she said.

Bringing about awareness


About 48 per cent of Arabic women are having their recommended mammograms done, compared to 54 per cent of the general population. Breast Screen’s campaign, launched at the beginning of May, will specifically target Arabic communities for the first time.


“What we hope to do is engage with women, especially using champions from their own communities, to talk to them and explain to them that there is no need to be concerned about the various different barriers,” campaign director Naomi Combe told SBS World News.


“To work with them so that they understand that the most important thing to do to look after their health is to screen regularly, every two years, to give themselves peace of mind and to make sure that they are looking after their health.”


With one in eight women in Australia likely to develop breast cancer, Ms Combe says detecting a cancer early opens a range of treatment options for patients and significantly boosts their chances of survival.


She hopes the use of two breast cancer survivors from the Arabic community will help promote a positive message about breast screening.


“Certainly our experience would show that when women are spoken to by somebody from their own communities and in their own languages, it’s really much more persuasive for them because they relate so much more to that person and obviously when somebody is using your own language it’s much more likely to be more convincing”, she said.


Fear of the ‘C word’

Doctor Nirmala Pathmanathan has been the Director of the Westmead Breast Cancer Institute for the past five years and says promoting breast cancer within the Arabic community has been a difficult message to sell.


She says a widespread culture of misconceptions and myths surrounding breast cancer and mammograms have compounded the reluctance of women to get screened.


“First of all they think to themselves, ‘well we don’t have a family history, this is not a common disease for us, it doesn’t affect us – it’s a white woman’s disease'”, Dr Pathmanathan told SBS World News.


“Secondly, they might feel their role as a wife or a mother takes precedence over their own health, so they won’t take the time to actually come and have a mammogram. They may also feel that, you know, ‘I don’t have a lump in my breast, I don’t need to have this test, I am perfectly well, why would I need to have this test?’


“And also there’s the stigmatisation around cancer, so there’s this misconception that breast cancer is a fatal disease, it’s got the c-word, the cancer word. But in reality, it’s highly treatable, particularly when it’s picked up early.”

‘Breast screens save lives’

Cancers can sometimes be as small as a grain of rice, and experts say only advanced technology and equipment found in hospitals and breast clinics can detect these.


Mammograms are free for women between the ages of 50 and 74, and Dr Pathmanathan says women within this age bracket should make the most of the service.


“Cancer is not the death sentence we used to believe it is, it is definitely an imminently treatable disease and we’re very lucky in Australia with the wonderful medical facilities we have, we have one of the highest survival rates from breast cancer in the world,” she said.


Arabic women have also attributed things like poor English skills, embarrassment at having to expose their bodies, and fear of the actual test for their reluctance at getting screened.


But Ms Combe says breast screening sites offer a variety of services to ensure the absolute comfort of their patients.


“The actual breast x-ray is very short, it’s a matter of seconds, really. And all the way through and at all points, women are made welcome and we explain what’s going on,” she said.


“So before women actually have the procedure somebody explains to them how it works, how it happens. As we said, you’ll always have an interpreter with them and that interpreter is free of charge.


“You can bring a female friend along and then the procedure itself is very short and when it’s over, women are told they’ll receive their results within the next two weeks or so and then hopefully for them that’s it for another two years.”


Watch the SBS video on the breast cancer campaign or to read article on the number of Arabic women having regular breast screens.