Breast screening rates among South Asian women in NSW need to change


Did you know that breast cancer is a leading cause of death in women in India and Sri Lanka?
In Australia, the Department of Health and Ageing has been persuading women aged 50–69 years to have a mammography every two years. This strategy is adopted because the risk of developing breast cancer increases with age. Research shows that “75 per cent of all breast cancers occur in women over the age of 50 years”. According to Cancer Australia, in 2009 the average age of breast cancer diagnosis in Australia was 60.7 years and, in 2010, 52.5% of new breast cancer cases diagnosed were in women aged 50–69 years. This age-related risk is also reflected in many other studies.
Last month, I attended an Indian and Sri Lankan community leaders forum organised by the NSW Multicultural Health Communication Service (, which partnered with the NSW Refugee Health Service ( and the Cancer Institute NSW (
At this forum I heard some disturbing news:
1. In NSW, approximately one in five women of Tamil or Hindi speaking background participate in breast screening. This compares with screening participation of about one in two women in the general population.
2. The vast majority of women who speak Hindi or Tamil in NSW do not regularly attend BreastScreen.
3. In NSW, Tamil speaking women are about four times less likely to participate in breast screening compared with women in the general population.
4. In NSW, Hindi speaking women are about one-third less likely to participate in breast screening compared with women in the general population.
5. Hindi and Tamil speaking women are the two culturally and linguistically diverse groups least likely to participate in breast screening in NSW.

The Pink Sari Project is a community based initiative helping to address that by bringing various organisations together to increase breast screening rates in women from the Indian and Sri Lankan communities in NSW. The Pink Sari Project was launched at the forum. More than 80 people attended the forum to learn how they can help save the lives of mothers, grandmothers, daughters and sisters in the Indian and Sri Lankan communities.
One of their strongest advocates is Indian-born, Parramatta-based Dr Palu Malaowalla. Dr Malaowalla is also a breast cancer survivor. She says, “As a doctor, I do breast checks for everyone yet I didn’t find my own cancer. Even the surgeons couldn’t find it. It was only on mammogram that it was detected. That saved my life.”
You can view Palu’s interview here:
Meredith Kay, Director of the BreastScreen NSW, Northern Sydney Local Health District, said “nine out of 10 breast cancers occur in women with no family history, so being ‘breast aware’ and spending 30 minutes every two years will bring peace of mind. Women need to be aware that early detection significantly increases the chance of survival from breast cancer to as much as 97%, and for women aged 50–74, a mammogram every two years can detect a breast cancer the size of a grain of rice, long before it can be felt or seen”.
Studies have identified a number of factors as influencing attitudes among South Asian immigrant women including those from India and Sri Lanka in relation to breast screening. These include:
• Lack of knowledge about breast cancer and health matters;
• Fear and superstition;
• Family honour;
• Lack of time;
• Modesty and
• Misunderstanding and lack of English language proficiency in some cases.

Why do we have low rates? What can be done? What is the current understanding of breast cancer?
What are the myths and more importantly FACTS about BreastScreening /Mammograms?
Sunday, 1.30PM to 3.30PM, 16 November 2014 at Ermington Community Centre, Ermington, NSW 2115.
Indian and Sri Lankan community members, associations and media are encouraged to attend. Community members, especially women from Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Nepali backgrounds are very welcome to attend.
Published in The Indian Sun

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