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Cultural shawls improve breast screen experience for Aboriginal women in Bendigo 

Mother and daughter Sandra and Naomi Draper after their breast screens.

Mother and daughter Sandra and Naomi Draper after their breast screens.

BreastScreen Victoria's hot pink van Nina rolled into Bendigo last week to give local Aboriginal women a culturally safe and supported breast screening experience.

In partnership with the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO), we're excited to be visiting 10 Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations across the state this year to bring breast screening to more Aboriginal women.

First in 2021 was Bendigo and District Aboriginal Cooperative (BDAC). As part of our Beautiful Shawl Project, the first 100 women receiving a mammogram received a free, locally-designed cultural screening shawl to wear during the procedure and take home.

The BreastScreen Victoria mobile screening service.

The BreastScreen Victoria mobile screening service.

The shawls are about helping women feel more comfortable, respected, and culturally safe. Bendigo's shawl features a design by local Wadawurrung and Gunditjmara artist Trina Dalton-Oogjes called Women's Journey Together.

"The water at the base of the artwork is to represent the sea or the rivers, as women come together from other communities, as the footprints travel across the land," Trina said in a statement. "The seven sisters shine bright in the sky, and the centre shows all the women holding hands in support of a shared journey for breast screens."

Two women holding up a shawl.

Wiradjuri Woman and Cancer Screening Lead at VACCHO, Mafi Kailahi (left) and Wemba Wemba, Dja Dja Wurrung and Boonwurrung woman Nellie Flagg (right).

Last week, BDAC held a Women's Health Day, hosting VCS Foundation, Cancer Council Victoria, Murray City Country Coast GP Training, Births, Deaths and Marriages Victoria alongside the breast screening van. With music pumping, stalls, and screening information, community members took time to learn more about screening and the importance of early detection.

The afternoon brought rain and a cool change, but clients kept warm with the shawls around their shoulders and a cup of tea in hand.

Aunty Nellie Flagg, an Elder and a Taylor-Charles, whose traditional countries are Wemba Wemba, Dja Dja Wurrung and Boonwurrung, was involved in early consultation with BreastScreen Victoria about Aboriginal women getting breast screens. Currently living in Geelong on Wathaurong land, Nellie was in Bendigo for work and took the opportunity to have a breast screen at BDAC.

"I was certainly overdue to have a breast screen. Coming to Bendigo for work was an opportunity for me to have my screening, and it was lovely. Instead of going into a mainstream organisation to have the screen done, I had it here in the van, which was convenient," Aunty Nelly said. "The staff were wonderful, and they make you feel very comfortable. And even more special, I got this amazing shawl to wear. I, unfortunately, have had cousins and friends pass from breast cancer, so it's an important screen to go and get done and to keep an eye on."

Wemba Wemba, Dja Dja Wurrung and Boonwurrung woman Nellie Flagg.

Wemba Wemba, Dja Dja Wurrung and Boonwurrung woman Nellie Flagg.

Aunty Nellie had a message for women who might be scared or worried about getting screened.

"I understand how you feel. Know that when you get screened, you will get a shawl to wear - so if you feel like you don't want to expose your body to others, then you wear a shawl," she said. "Unfortunately, it doesn't take away the pain of getting your boob squashed, but it's a bit of pain for a lot of gain, so I certainly encourage you to go and get it done. Be brave. Because we need you in our community."

Breast cancer is the most common cancer for Aboriginal women. Aboriginal women typically screen at lower rates than the general population; however, the number of Aboriginal women accessing breast screens increases each year.

The Beautiful Shawl Project is an award-winning initiative that has visited 11 communities since October 2018, and 260 Aboriginal women have screened.