Just months after fleeing war-torn Bosnia and arriving in Australia as a refugee, Vesna Stajic faced another deadly threat in the form of cancer.
The Wollongong resident is one of the cancer survivors who has shared her story for the Cancer Good News Project which aims to break down the stigma surrounding cancers, particularly among Macedonian and Serbian communities.
The project, which was launched this week, is being run by the University of Wollongong’s Centre for Health Initiatives in partnership with the Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District and Cancer Council NSW Southern Region.
Centre for Health Initiatives’ Dr Lyn Phillipson said research within the region’s Macedonian and Serbian communities showed cancer was greatly feared and stigmatised.
‘‘We know in communities which come from culturally diverse backgrounds that the cancer outcomes are worse, which is partly because they tend to present very late for cancer when it is quite advanced,’’ she said.
‘‘We know there are beliefs and taboos around illness, and around cancer in these communities which can create barriers to accessing screening and treatment.
‘‘So this project is all about sharing some good news about cancer – about improved treatment and survival rates and some personal stories of survival – in an effort to encourage community members to undertake cancer screening.’’
Ms Stajic was new to the region when she attended a health education session which led to her cervical cancer diagnosis.
‘‘I left Bosnia in 1995 because of war and went to Serbia and then came to Australia with my son who was eight at the time,’’ she said.
‘‘I attended a health session about five months later and the women’s health nurse explained how important screening was and asked if anyone wanted to get screened.
‘‘No-one else put their hand up so I thought someone better do it to set an example, and so I did, and later underwent screening. Two weeks later I received the diagnosis.’’
The cancer had not spread and Ms Stajic, then 40, underwent a hysterectomy. She urged others to not let stigma stop them getting screened.
‘‘Many people are still hesitant, and I was too but I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t put my hand up,’’ she said.
Judita Matic, who emigrated from Serbia 47 years ago, is also trying to help break down the barriers for her community.
‘‘I’ve had two friends who’ve had breast cancer and have had to have mastectomies,’’ she said.
‘‘There’s such a taboo surrounding it, that after the initial shock they felt ashamed. In our culture it’s not something you’re supposed to talk about – if anyone mentions it, everyone freezes.’’
The project includes a website (cancer-goodnews.com.au), plus the launch of community newsletters, education forums and radio scripts to be aired on multicultural radio stations in Macedonian and Serbian.