Cancer Council Ambassadors share their story
Aunty Janice Rigney and Ned Koolmatrie are both Ambassadors for Cancer Council SA’s Aboriginal Screening Program, funded by Adelaide PHN. They lead Yarning Circles in Aboriginal communities focused on cancer screening and prevention. This Bowel Cancer Month, we asked them to share their story and why they’re passionate about promoting bowel cancer screening in their local communities.
Tell us about your role as an Ambassador and why promoting cancer screening is important to you?
I’m a lung cancer survivor and decided that I really wanted to do something to give back. For a lot of Aboriginal men, it’s really hard to talk about your health, in particular something like bowel cancer. I think that there’s a bit of shame there, but when they hear other men talking about it and sharing their experiences, they’ll open up. I thought that I was sitting here doing nothing, I know how to talk to people and I have a story to share, so I decided to get involved.
The Yarning Circles are really great, we are able to sit and we talk about our experiences. A few of us have had battles with cancer or a family member or friend going through it and the Yarning Circles really help us to share those experiences.
When I was approached to be a Cancer Council Ambassador, I jumped at the opportunity. I think it’s very important, not only for community, but for your immediate family, to understand just how important screening is. Almost 10 years ago, I lost my brother to bowel cancer. He didn’t know about the symptoms and had never done a bowel cancer test so just thought he had a hernia. If he had of known more, the outcome might have been different. Then, three years ago, I lost my twin sister to bowel cancer.
To lose two people to bowel cancer, especially when there is a such a reliable screening test, is really hard. I can’t stress enough how important it is to do the test as bowel cancer can develop without any symptoms at all. I don’t want anyone to go through what our family’s been through, which is why promoting cancer screening is so important to me.
When hosting the Yarning Circles, what are the biggest barriers you hear to doing the bowel cancer test?
When you talk about scraping off a bit of poo it really does just turn people off. That, combined with the shame that men feel talking about something like bowel cancer, can really put them off. I remember when I first received the test in the mail, I have to admit that it sat there in my house for a long time. When I started working with Cancer Council, I realised how important doing the test is.
Once you explain it to people and how simple it is, they realise it’s not a really big deal. You just have to keep speaking to people until you get through, even if it takes a couple of tries.
In Aboriginal communities not doing the test probably has a lot to do with shame and embarrassment. A lot of people in our community also have a “it’ll be right” attitude and often leave it too late to get checked. I know what I’m like, if I get any pain in my body I go and get it checked out straight away. I want other people to know that the test can find small amounts of blood in poo, which can be a symptom of bowel cancer and not leave it till it’s too late because they don’t want to talk about it.
Why should Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people do the bowel cancer test?
At the end of the day, looking after your health really is up to you—it’s a life or death situation. Do you want to live a bit longer, or do you not want to? It might seem harsh but people need to understand. I meet people whose family members didn’t do the test and passed away. My message to people is to just do a little test and that’s it—by not doing it, you really are making a life or death decision.
Looking after your health is so important, so my message every time I go out into the community is to be aware of the risks and get yourself checked, if not for you, for the sake of your family.
When I meet people, I ask them – “Do you want to be around to see your children, grandchildren and great grandchildren grow up?”. They will always reply yes, which is when I go on to tell them about cancer screening and why it’s so important. It’s just one thing you can do for your health, but it’s a really important thing.
What is your message to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?
I’ve known people who think that they’re healthy and don’t need to do the test and have passed away from bowel cancer. I have survived lung cancer and my ex-wife went through ovarian cancer. When someone’s going through cancer, there’s nothing that you can do, you just sit there and watch them in pain. She had to ride it out and she’s doing much better now. But if she could have done a simple test to prevent that pain, then she would have done it for sure. That’s what I want to try and get into people’s heads—it doesn’t have to be the worst outcome, often if you catch it in time then you’re right.
Don’t be scared to get screened. By having it sorted early there’s every chance that you can recover from it. If you just ignore the signs or the home test kit you receive in the mail, then often it can be too late. Knowing what I’ve been through I wouldn’t want to see anyone in the community lose a loved one like I did, which is why it’s so important to do something about it before it is too late.
June is Bowel Cancer Month and if you’re aged between 50 and 74, make sure you’re up to date with your two-yearly bowel cancer screening test. It’s also a great opportunity for all South Australians to get empowered and learn how to cut their bowel cancer risk. If you would like to know if you are eligible for a home test kit, when your test will arrive, or require a replacement, contact the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program on 1800 118 868. Alternatively, you can talk with your GP or Aboriginal Health Practitioner about bowel cancer screening.
Remember, if you have a family history of bowel cancer, are experiencing symptoms or something doesn’t feel quite right, it’s important you go to the doctor or speak to an Aboriginal Health Practitioner as soon as possible—don’t wait for the test to arrive in the mail.