A recent Pink Sari exhibition turns the spotlight on cancer survivors and encourages other subcontinental women to get regular mammograms
Colour me pink, because pink is the colour of hope and survival, and it makes for an awesome sari to celebrate in!
“I was always fit as a fiddle. I have always felt great. I was travelling, driving everywhere, but when that dreadful day came, I knew I had to be strong.” These are the words of 72-year-old cancer survivor Lali Kumar alongside her portrait currently on display at Blacktown Arts Centre.
The Pink Sari Project, a community-driven health initiative, is shining a light on the need for mammograms and breast screening in the subcontinental community. With a photographic exhibition titled “Portraits in Pink”, 14 Indian and Sri Lankan torch bearers – with inspirational strength, courage and a healthy dose of spunk! – are raising awareness of breast cancer, promoting the importance of early detection and encouraging women to self-examine as well as get regular mammograms. These sari superheros are trying to help overcome the low breast screening rates identified within these communities, and help save women’s lives.
The portraits capture the essence of these women – the laughter, joy and delight as well as the solemn moments of introspection. The photographers all developed a bond with their subjects and it shows in the portraits. This is especially apparent in photographer Sanjeev Singh’s portrait of Gladys Roach. Sanjeev himself has a personal connection to the cause.
“As the child of a cancer survivor (my mother had uterine cancer in 2011), I realised from my mother’s experience that a lot of older women in ethnic communities lack the resources and information to educate themselves in understanding their bodies better and recognising early symptoms. I feel this project is a beautiful and non-threatening way to create dialogue and awareness of cancer.”
The photographs pay tribute to the incredible journey these women have made. Irene D’Souza is photographed by Ajit Lamba in her beautiful garden with a cup of chai.
“My favourite therapy during this journey was gardening,” D’souza says. “I am passionate about it, and it still keeps me busy many years after cancer. There is a lot of satisfaction, accomplishment and happiness in a good garden.”
One inspiring story is that of Maina Gordon. Maina has battled Multiple Sclerosis (MS) for the past 20 years and has been wheelchair bound since 2008. She was diagnosed with breast cancer on her 48th birthday. The truly inspirational part is that Maina has not allowed this to define her. She is a fighter, a survivor and a true blue Aussie trooper. Maina Gordon has also run her own legal practice for some years. Maina’s smile, giggles and effervescence light up every room. To me, she personifies survival.
The Pink Sari Project is led by the NSW Multicultural Health Communication Service (MHCS) and the NSW Refugee Health Service, with funding received from the Cancer Institute NSW.
The Project is supported by an interdisciplinary academic team from the University of Technology (UTS) and various Breast Screen NSW services while community engagement has been led by women’s aid groups such as SAHELI, led by Shantha Vishwanathan, and SEVA.
Behroze Bilmoria describes her source of strength after her diagnosis as her family and friends. “My friends held a “Lumpectomy Party” for me the night before I was to go for mapping and surgery,” Bilmoria explains. “However, during the party, my girls and my husband had a serious discussion with our doctor friends as they were of the opinion that due to my family history I should think about a mastectomy. I agreed with them. My family wanted me to live a healthy life and a missing breast was not important to them nor to me.
So I told my friends this was going to be a “Bye Bye Lefty” party and not a Lumpectomy Party. Many of them were stunned by my sudden decision, but once they knew I was accepting of this they joined in and we had a great night. Next morning, I sent a fax to my oncologist telling him of the change in plans and he too was supportive of my decision.”
The sad reality is that even though the subcontinental community is amongst the fastest growing multicultural communities in Australia, we are still lagging far behind and in fact have some of the lowest screening rates in the country. According to the Cancer Institute of NSW, only one in five women from Sri Lankan and Indian communities have regular mammograms, compared with one in two women generally. This is at the heart of the reason why these 14 women have become beacons for the cause. Their stories resonate with us because it could just as easily be any of us or our loved ones. Breast cancer affects everyone. Approximately 42 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every day. Regular screening and early detection brings hope to treatment!
So, how can you help? Get involved. Make a pledge to start a conversation at your next dinner party and encourage the women in your network – mothers, daughters, aunties and friends – to self-examine and to go for a mammogram. Make it your business and if you have a friend/family member diagnosed with breast cancer, never underestimate the power of just “being there” and providing a laugh.
‘BUSTING’ SOME MYTHS
“No one in my family has breast cancer, I won’t get it”
Only 5-10% of all breast cancers are genetically disposed. The majority of women diagnosed have no family history of the disease.
“Mammograms have radiation and will cause the cancer to spread”
A mammogram is just like an x-ray, yes there is some radiation, but it’s no more radiation than if you were to walk through an x-ray machine at the airport. It’s recommended that you go for a mammogram once a year above the age of 40, but you should talk to your doctor.
“Breast cancer is secret women’s business”
On average, about 2190 men develop breast cancer every year. In fact, men carry a higher mortality rate than women due to lack of awareness.
“Breast cancer always comes in the form of lumps”
You must be alert for all kinds of changes, including but not limited to skin irritation, swelling, dimpling and pain. It’s your body, if it’s not what you’re used to, find out why!
“Breast cancer is preventable”
Sadly, no. Although you can make lifestyle changes to lower your risk by undertaking regular exercise, weight control, limiting alcohol consumption and quitting smoking, the disease occurs largely by chance. Early detection is your best friend.