BreastScreen Victoria and the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO) are saying goodbye to the days of sterile, cold mammograms under fluorescent flickering lights and saying hello to mammograms in hot pink vans, with beautifully created cultural shawls and lots of love and giggles.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the organisations have introduced a program which enables Aboriginal women living in regional and remote areas of Victoria to access safe, free and comforting breast screening facilities.

The idea for the program was born from conversations between BreastScreen Victoria CEO, Vicki Pridmore and VACCHO Manager of Public Health and Research, Susan Forrester.

Ms Forrester said that most women shy away from breast screening due to the safety aspect.

“Why we use the word safe is because there are lots of layers around health and some of the themes that were emerging were that women may have felt a bit uncomfortable being screened for multiple reasons and at times, the staff they had contact with across the health system, although [they] may have been very well meaning, lacked cultural awareness.”

The program was trialled, a screen-friendly shawl was designed using artwork by Lyn Briggs, and the shawls were gifted to each woman who was screened.

The trial was a result of a team of around 15 women who screened 14 First Nations women. The feedback received was exactly what BreastScreen Victoria’s Senior Health Promotion’s Officer, Lisa Joyce had hoped for.

“The feedback included things like, I feel safe, protected by culture, cultural safety blanket, made me proud of who I am and visible, the shawl was a screen from feeling shame and it was beautiful, easy to wear and makes you feel comfortable and safe,” Ms Joyce said.

BreastScreen Victoria and VACCHO have partnered with eight Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations (ACCHOs) who will receive visits from Nina and Marjorie – BreastScreen Victoria’s hot pink breast screening vans.

The vans will work with ACCHOs to provide Aboriginal women with free mammograms, which assist in the identification of breast cancer in its early stages. The program is aimed particularly at women between 50 and 74, who are at higher risk of breast cancer.

The program will also gift a shawl to 50 women from each centre – which will be printed with a design of their country.

Amber Neilley, VACCHO’s State-wide Health Services Program Officer said artworks have been created by artists both established and emerging.

“Each shawl has been designed by a local artist, we are taking the shawls with the designs back to country,” Ms Neilley said.

Ms Joyce said that bringing the vans onto ACCHO sites offers leadership to those centres.

“We are playing into self-determination in that way as the organisation is in control of who screens and what happens in their community in that time,” Ms Joyce said.

“Many of the sites we are going to … have permanent breast screening facilities in the town but we know that Aboriginal women aren’t attending those clinics so we are trying to increase that by bringing it to a familiar place.”

“Taking the van and using the shawls is the first step in improving Aboriginal women’s experiences when they come to breast screens. I think unfamiliarity, lack of trust and potential fear is why we don’t have that contact with many women.”

Research shows that once a woman has screened for breast cancer, she is more likely to regularly screen – a hope the team have for the women in these communities.

“We hope that when the project leaves town the shawl will be in the permanent screening space and people will become involved,” Ms Forrester said.

“We want to be able to say here is a strength-based, culturally-led model that can go national, and international. The CEO of BreastScreen has just been at the World Indigenous Cancer Conference in Canada and presented this on our behalf and she has had a world of interest.”

“It would be great to share this model so people can do this nationally in communities – and it can be shared to other First Nations communities across the world.”

Dates and locations for BreastScreen Victoria’s screening vans include:

  • 30/9 – 4/10 at Dhauwurd-Wurrung Elderly and Community Health Service (DWECH)
  • 7/10 – 10/10 at Winda-Mara Aboriginal Corporation
  • 14/10 – 18/10 at Gunditjmara Aboriginal Cooperative
  • 21/10 – 24/10 at Kirrae Health Service
  • 28/10 – 1/11 at Wathaurong Aboriginal Cooperative
  • 11/11 – 15/11 at Rumbalara Aboriginal Cooperative
  • 18/11 to 22/11 at Ramahyuck District Aboriginal Corporation.

For more information, visit: https://www.breastscreen.org.au/.