It takes a long time for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to love themselves. But it is only when you learn to love yourself that you can truly take care of yourself.
In 2004, after attending a routine breast screen, I knew there was something wrong. After a week without receiving any results from my mammogram, I followed up.
I was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer at the age of 48. I had a single mastectomy and live with that for the rest of my life, I am a survivor and still a sufferer.
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It is still the most commonly diagnosed cancer in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, but what’s more concerning is that not a lot of these women survive. It’s a hidden disease that shows no symptoms until it has developed into a lump some time down the track.
Around the time of my diagnosis, there were no radiographers where I was. But if I had waited, who knows what the end result would’ve been?
I went through the experience alone and it was traumatic, something that I don’t want to see other Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander women go through. Every two weeks I would take myself to chemotherapy, the most grueling and horrible experience with side effects that were harrowing. I would sit in the car after chemo until the side effects wore off then I’d drive myself home.
When I was diagnosed, those close around me, especially my sisters, were scared of what to say. When something like that happens to someone you think has got their life “together” it's difficult and confronting for those around you. Even now it’s not spoken about with my sisters, it’s just not what we did.
I remember my last appointment with my doctor. He told me I didn’t need to return, and I cried - I was truly devastated. Those appointments had been a constant in my life for months and a support network of sorts.
My trauma from my own experience sparked a passion, and I have since devoted my work to ensuring that these women feel supported during the process. I now go back to have a mammogram every 12 months and work tirelessly to encourage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to do the same.
Since 2005, I have served as an Aboriginal advisor for BreastScreen NSW, helping to educate and encourage women to do their breast screens. Not only do we aim to create a safer and more secure environment, but we want to make BreastScreen more inclusive and user friendly.
Like the reaction of my sisters, a lot of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women don’t think to go get tested. Why do I think this is the case? Personally from my own observations, I think a lot of women are stopped by commitments - some in drug related situations, some with violent partners, and often told they are not good enough. If you’re told that you will never amount to anything, then why bother taking care of yourself?
Amongst my many pieces of advice, you need to remember that there are always caring people out there who will support you through your breast cancer journey. Even more importantly, we are strong black sisters, and we need to care for ourselves!
Women are the keepers of knowledge and the ones that keep the family together. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander society is matriarchal, but yet, we still don’t give ourselves enough credit.
It’s so important to remember where we came from and we do this by passing on knowledge and listening. I know I am “Aunty Joy '' but I also want to know my Aboriginal journey, and that journey comes from your learnings - and you learn by listening.
Aboriginal women, we are good enough.
Women are the nurturers who teach the young ones to never forget where they come from. Over time, women have had to step up, keeping the families together.
Learn to love yourself and remember yourself as the proud Aboriginal woman that you are.
Get tested. The earlier you get it, the sooner you can fix it.
I want to be around to see my grandchildren have children, support my daughter, and support other women.
I don’t do what I do for myself; I do it to make the path better for my sister girls. We’ve got to be available, open, caring, and sharing to make sure this doesn’t happen. A simple test changes that.
If just one Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander woman gets a breast screen, then we are doing something right and moving in the right direction.
Not everyone will be ready to hear that we need to love ourselves, and put our health first. I choose to show my scars, speak openly and educate my grandchildren so they know what to do and to be aware. More so, they will know there’s always support.
Your breast cancer journey is so personal, but there is no reason to do it alone. You and me become WE.
Aunty Joy is known and loved by all in the Hunter, New England region. She works towards supporting all women, in particular Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to value their lives enough to put themselves first. Aunty Joy has been used in advertising and brochures for breast screening which has helped Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women identify and feel safe to get tested.
Aunty Joy is a part of Breast Cancer Trials IMPACT group who promote awareness for trials and breast cancer health to all women. For more information and the latest research updates from BCT, register for the virtual Q&A event on October 7th, 6-7pm AEDT.
Feature Image: Supplied.