Keeping abreast of cancer

Mental Health Week Feature:  7 – 14 Oct

ABORIGINAL women are 16 per cent less likely to survive breast cancer compared to non-indigenous women.

The shocking statistic has been the catalyst for a new social media campaign to increase early detection, with Indigenous cancer survivor Jacinta Elston telling the ABC that indigenous women tend to put off going to see the doctor about breast changes and don’t stick with treatment.

Dr Margaret Latham, a radiation oncologist, says getting more indigenous women to undergo treatment is a “complex problem”.

“Awareness campaigns can be improved but it is quite a complex problem not only due to remote location but also the way Aboriginal people deal with health and health issues in general,” she says.

“Many are reluctant to put their needs ahead of their community needs and there is not one simple solution.

“Anything that can be done to help women to be diagnosed as early as possible and to support them through the appropriate treatment and thus give them the best chance of cure is welcomed.”

• The National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation has previously tried to raise awareness about breast cancer.

For those unlucky enough to have developed breast cancer already, a lumpectomy (Breast Conserving Surgery) and radiotherapy can often be an alternative to having a devastating mastectomy followed by breast reconstruction.

“It gives similar excellent results in prevention of recurrence in the breast area but enables women to keep their breast,” Dr Latham says.

“Some people are surprised to know that breast cancer can return sometimes even after they have had a mastectomy but nothing is perfect.

“In some occasions after having BCS the tumour may be so small and low grade that patients can consider omitting the radiation particularly if they are over 70.

“There are some trials showing that patients can be considered for partial breast radiation rather than the full breast. The data here is still a bit immature so its not considered routine but it is an emerging area.”

Typically a course of radiotherapy to treat breast cancer takes 10-20 minutes a day, Monday to Friday, and runs over three to seven weeks.

“The main benefits of radiation are in preventing breast cancer recurrence,” Dr Latham says.

“It is usually given in a post operative setting where all the known tumour has been removed.

“We know however in a lot of patients there are still microscopic cells left behind and radiation can help kill these minimising the risk of recurrence.

“The alternative is to take a watch and wait approach but this is not recommended except for very low risk patients.

“Most breast cancers are treated with a multi pronged approach attacking it from different angles of surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or hormone treatment. Not everyone needs everything but options should be considered.”

Genesis CancerCare have centres in Bunbury, Joondalup, Murdoch and Wembley.

For more information visit

Meanwhile a new Australian trial has raised hopes that mastectomies could eventually be replaced by chemotherapy and hormone treatment.

The trial is attempting to shrink breast tumours before surgery, meaning patients only require a less invasive lumpectomy, rather than a mastectomy followed by breast reconstruction.

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