Multiple barriers including feeling shame and lack of cultural awareness are hindering Aboriginal women from having Cervical Screening Tests, new research from the Cancer Institute NSW has found.

The study collated the experiences of 94 Aboriginal women between the screening ages of 25 and 74 in relation to cervical screenings.

While rates of cervical cancer have declined in Australia in the last 25 years due to the National Cervical Screening Program, Aboriginal women remain four times more likely than non-Indigenous women to die from cervical cancer.

Professor David Currow, Chief Cancer Officer and CEO of the Cancer Institute NSW (CINSW) hopes this research will contribute to decreasing that rate.

“Reaching communities with a higher burden of cancer is a priority for the Institute,” he said.

“It’s important we know any barriers and understand the complexities behind lower screening rates. Engaging in robust, qualitative research such as this important study is the first step.”

Professor Currow said the report provides insight into how the National Cervical Screening Program can better support Aboriginal women.

“This piece of work will contribute to shaping future projects that will better engage communities to increase screening in a culturally safe way,” he said.

“Our aim is to eliminate cervical cancer in Australia by the 2030s and one important contributor to this is to continue to encourage every woman 25-74 to screen.”

Professor Currow also noted that “education is the key to prevention”. Cervical Screening Tests have the capacity to detect pre-cancerous cells which are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV).

“If found, they can be treated to prevent cancer developing,” said Professor Currow.

Participants of the study said that conversations about cancer, sickness and death, genitals and issues around sex were not commonly discussed among women in community.

Gumbaynggirr woman and Aboriginal health worker at Hunter New England Local Health District Mandy Cutmore is working in community to spread awareness of cervical cancer.

“It is important that Aboriginal women know that cervical cancer is one of the most preventable cancers … but 80 per cent of women diagnosed with cervical cancer, [have] never been screened or are due for screening,” she said.

“It’s so important we do get this message out into our communities, and we can come together to raise awareness … We can all work together to help raise awareness around cervical screening in a safe way.”

Gumbaynggirr woman and Aboriginal health worker at Hunter New England Local Health District Mandy Cutmore. Photo Supplied CINSW.

Cutmore assists in delivering education programs to community, including a women’s group, and an education program for high school-aged girls.

“One of the things we do here in community, is when we do health education, we don’t just speak with those from the age of 25 and up, which is the screening age. We also invite high school-aged children, from Year 9 upwards. That way they know that when they come of age, it is time to get screened,” she said.

Cutmore also noted the barriers that face Aboriginal women and girls when they begin their reproductive health journey.

“The barriers do include that shame, a lack of awareness and the fear associated with a cancer diagnosis … A lot of people are scared of the ‘big C’, we try and get the message out there, run programs and support people through whatever journey they’re on with their health,” she said.

“If you feel shame, or you’re a bit nervous, reach out to your doctor, nurse, or Aboriginal health worker and they can easily have a chat with you, go through the process with you.”

“That’s the important thing, giving people that education, taking along the tools and showing people what actually happens and that we are here to help.”

Since 2016 the NSW Government, through the CINSW, have invested over $14 million into cervical screening.

It is currently recommended that women between the ages of 25 and 74 have a cervical screening test every five years. Screening Tests can be booked through a GP, Aboriginal Medical Service or community health service.

By Rachael Knowles