Aboriginal Health #racism and #cancer #WCPH2017 : The inoperable, unstoppable @Proudblacksista Colleen Lavelle and other strong stories

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did,

but people will never forget how you made them feel. – Maya Angelou

These strong words are so true. I look at how my behaviour has changed with the brain tumour. I shudder when I think of the things I have said to my children.

I think it was about eight or nine years ago I was diagnosed with a brain tumour,

The reason I’m vague on it is I actually don’t think it’s a day to remember. It’s not a celebratory day.

Thinking about my four children motivates me to keep going

I’ll be buggered if I am going to have the [child safety] department or someone like that come in and take care of my kids.”

Cancer is a leading cause of death among Indigenous Australians, but fear, stigma and shame mean it is rarely spoken about.

Ms Colleen Lavelle’s a Wakka Wakka woman, from Queenslandknown as @Proudbacksista  tumour has been deemed inoperable, which means it’s considered terminal.

Hear or Download hear her Radio National Interview 


Watch ABC TV report

Photo above from previous NACCHO News Alert

NACCHO Aboriginal Health : Death by #racism: Is bigotry in the health system harming Indigenous patients ?

NACCHO and Cancer over 60 articles

NACCHO Cultural Safety

Federal Government Website

Cancer in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia

Colleen lives in Brisbane and through her blog she has become a support person for other Aboriginal people facing cancer, helping them with practical matters and being a friendly voice on the other end of a phone line.

She also accompanies some patients to hospital appointments and would like to see it made easier for Aboriginal volunteers to do such work.

“If you come from the Torres Strait and you’ve come down here and someone’s speaking to you really fast, rattling off all these medical things you’ll kind of be going, ‘what?’,” she said.

“If you’ve got someone, one of your own mob there it makes it easier.”

 Recently Colleen wrote for Croakey /We Public Health

Close the Gap should be so much more than a photo opportunity or a morning tea. There are ways that everyone can help. I am going to share ten simple ones that I have been trying to get happening for years.

  1. More Indigenous hospital liaison officers – Whatever title you use, we need more people in the hospital working for us. Big hospitals often only employ two, that is not even close to being enough. They should be employed around the clock.
  2. Indigenous hospital volunteers – Hospitals need to have a separate army of volunteers, who deal exclusively with Indigenous patients, to spend time with the person from a remote area in a city hospital. To sit with someone having a long treatment. Just a friendly face in an alien environment.
  3. Cultural Awareness Training (CAT) – Should be compulsory with all hospital staff, from the cleaner to the director. This training should address the issues and problems in health, but also needs to be localised to have the Traditional Owners from the area to share their knowledge. To truly let people understand, I am not talking a one of two-hour session a year, but a long, fully-formed training, with refresher courses each year. All medical and Allied Health professionals should do, and be assessed on, Cultural Awareness on a regular basis, and this needs to be registered. It is not good enough when a health professional does one course on Indigenous People and 20 years later still think that was enough. General Practice also need to have CAT, even if they are not signed on to CTG, because they are going to be seeing Indigenous patients.
  4. General Practice incentive payments – GPs must lose their incentive payments if they sign on for the incentive and, during that time they don’t see an Indigenous patient. Again, they should lose the bonus if they are signed up and do not annotate the prescriptions for patients.
  5. Indigenous people have the right of choice – We should be able to see a private GP or the local Indigenous Medical Service, or both if we want, but some funding seems to steer us towards the Indigenous Medical Service. This can be hard if it’s a long way from your home and you have to depend on public transport.
  6. Employ more Indigenous people in the health sector, not just  doctors – It can be as simple as a receptionist, who makes a difference.
  7. Indigenous patients must be heard – Not just in the surgery but on national committees. Our experiences must be more than just fodder for researchers or funding applications.
  8. Buck-passing – PHNs, Division of General Practices and other organisations, must stop handing over Indigenous units to others. You have patients that see so many doctors, you have to be responsible. Handing units over to Indigenous Medical Services etc, is passing the buck. It takes away our free choice. It is a way of saying you are not interested in our wellbeing.
  9. Respect – Invite Elders to your hospital, clinic, whatever, on a regular basis, consider having an Elder in residence at your local hospital.
  10. Recognise and celebrate our important dates – It smacks of racism if a hospital is decked out in green and shamrocks everywhere for St Patrick’s day and come NAIDOC, there is a morning tea, hidden away, with only a few people involved. Share it. Don’t even get me started on Australia Day. (Okay, just a little bit) Understand that we don’t think it’s great to wave the flag or want to be in your premises when you have complete overkill of decorations and start talking about how wonderful it is.

The unspoken illness: Cancer in Aboriginal communities

Cancer is a leading cause of death among Indigenous Australians, but fear, stigma and shame mean it is rarely spoken about.

Aboriginal Australians are less likely to be diagnosed with cancer, but significantly more likely to die of the disease.

Often, symptoms and diagnoses are ignored because of the fear surrounding cancer.

Cancer in Aboriginal communities:

  • Indigenous Australians have a slightly lower rate of cancer diagnosis than non-Indigenous Australians
  • The Aboriginal cancer mortality rate is 30 per cent higher
  • Indigenous Australians are more likely to be diagnosed when cancer is advanced
  • They are less likely to participate in cancer screening programs
  • Lung cancer is the most common cancer among Indigenous Australians

Lateline spoke to some Aboriginal people about how they dealt being diagnosed and how they’re trying to break down taboos in their communities.

Rodney Graham: Bowel cancer


Rodney Graham literally ran away from his diagnosis in 2015.

For seven months he didn’t go back to his doctor after he was told he had bowel cancer.

Eventually though, he mustered the courage to deal with the diagnosis and get treatment.

He had to travel 700 kilometres from his community of Woorabinda, in central Queensland, to Brisbane to be operated on.

“A big city like that, I don’t even like going to [Rockhampton] really. I can’t stand Rocky. But Brisbane that was a step up you know,” he said.

Now Mr Graham is happy to talk about his illness and wants to help others in his community face up to cancer.

“It might happen to someone else and they say, ‘Well we’ll go see Rodney, he knows all about it’,” he said.

“I’ll give them some advice and see how it goes from there.”

Mr Graham gave up drinking years ago and he said it probably saved his life.

“I think if I was still drinking I wouldn’t be here, you know what I mean,” he said.

Aunty Tina Rankin: Cervical cancer

Aunty Tina has survived cancer, but seen several close relatives succumb to the disease.

“One minute you’re sitting down there with that person, that person is so healthy, and then the next time you see them they’re that sick, they’re that small you can hardly recognise them,” she said.

“People think of it as the killer disease.

“They see people in cancer wards and to look at those people it puts them into a depressed state, and they go home thinking that they’re going to end up like that.”

Aunty Tina said people need to know there is help available for cancer sufferers.

She is part of the Woorabinda Women’s Group who are working to raise awareness in the community about cancer so sufferers don’t feel isolated.

“When you’re well and up and running, you’ve got that many friends,” she said.

“All of a sudden you get sick, you find out you’ve got cancer, you’ve got nobody, it feels as if you’re on your own.

“There were times when I just wanted to go and commit suicide through the depression.

“But I sit down and think about things, I pull myself out of that deep hole.”

Sevese Isaro: Lost his father to cancer

Sevese Isaro, or Tatay as he’s known locally, is Woorabinda’s radio host.

He knows first-hand how hard it can be to talk about cancer, having lost his father to the disease just a few years ago.

“Everyone just tried to stop talking about it,” he said.

“I fell back into drinking, everybody just went their own way.”

He said many people don’t go to the doctor when they suspect they could have cancer.

“They know that there’s something wrong with them, but they don’t want to go because they’re frightened of the answer,” he said.

“I guess people once they hear the word cancer they start getting frightened and they automatically give up hope.”

If you or anyone you know needs help contact your local ACCHO or call

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