Call for Maori women to have breast checks

Lucia Ekenasio is encouraging Maori women to get their mammograms in the wake of her own breast cancer diagnosis.

“Don’t be scared, just get it done.”

That’s the message from Tauranga’s Lucia Ekenasio, 51, who is currently undergoing chemotherapy to treat breast cancer.

Lucia – of Maori, Tokelauan and European descent – discovered she had breast cancer earlier this year after it was picked up in her regular mammogram.

She encourages all women, and particularly Maori women, to make sure they have their regular mammograms, which are free for women aged 45-69.

She thinks many women are too scared to have the breast health check because they fear bad news.

“I think they’re scared that maybe it will be too late,” says Lucia.

“I firmly believe that if you get [the cancer] before it spreads, then you’ve got a chance at living a bit longer. I’ve stayed positive because there’s no use looking at the bad side of cancer. You’ve just got to go through the process, work through the treatment and keep yourself busy.”

Lucia keeps herself busy, and positive, by listening to music and taking regular walks with her partner Toni.

Her sister has had breast cancer, and she also lost her father to cancer.

“The overwhelming thing for me is going from being healthy to sick,” she says. “I don’t feel sick.

“Once it got to the chemo stage, that’s when reality set in. I saw my father go through the same thing and it really upset me.”

Lucia works as a security guard at Tauranga Hospital, so it was an unusual experience to find herself on the receiving end of treatment at the hospital.

“When I got out of my operation, there was a great big card with lots of names in it and I’ve had lots of support from my manager.”

She has also had regular phone calls and emails of support from the team at Breast Cancer Support Service Tauranga Trust.

Maori women have had the highest rates and the largest increase in breast cancer in the past two decades, increasing from 123 to 210 per 100,000 women. This is a 70 per cent increase compared to non-Maori women (50 per cent).

Maori women are 21 per cent more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer, 30 per cent less likely to be diagnosed early and 72 per cent more likely to die from breast cancer than non-Maori.

They are also more likely to get breast cancer younger.

The Maori survival rate for advanced breast cancer is worse than other ethnic groups, with non-Maori surviving 23 per cent longer than Maori.

In order to detect breast cancers when they are at an early stage and curable, BreastScreen Aotearoa aims to provide mammograms to 70 per cent of New Zealand women aged 45-69.

However, far lower percentages of Maori and Pasifika women are screened when compared with other ethnic groups.

Helen Alice, manager of the Breast Cancer Support Service Tauranga Trust, says trends are improving slowly.

“It’s still so important for our breast cancer screening programmes to reach Maori women,” says Helen. “Maori health groups are doing a great deal to support their wahine to get regular checks.”