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Cultural shawls support Aboriginal women in Echuca through their breast screening experience

Local women Vicki Walker and Shelley Atkinson wearing the shawl.

Local women Vicki Walker and Shelley Atkinson wearing the shawl.

Travelling from Bendigo to Echuca, our mobile screening service and Beautiful Shawls are on a mission to help Aboriginal women feel more comfortable, respected and safe throughout their breast screening experience.

Last week, in partnership with Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO), we visited Njernda Aboriginal Corporation in Echuca. Women received a free, cultural screening shawl designed by local Yorta Yorta, Wemba Wemba, Mutti Mutti and Wiradjuri artist Alkina Edwards. She calls her artwork Winyarr Malka, meaning 'Woman Shield'.

"The design represents the strength and support given to women who are affected by breast cancer," Alkina explains in a statement. "As you can see, we have two women putting their hands on the shoulders of the middle woman. This symbolises giving strength and empowerment to the fighters, survivors and honouring the women who have lost their lives. The symbols in the background represent family, friends and community support."

Yorta Yorta, Wemba Wemba, Mutti Mutti and Wiradjuri artist Alkina Edwards.

Yorta Yorta, Wemba Wemba, Mutti Mutti and Wiradjuri artist Alkina Edwards.

Now living in Echuca, Barapa woman Liz Campbell-Pay braved her first breast screen in six years with the shawl on her shoulders for support.

"I haven't had breast screening very often, and I realise now I should. I had one six years ago, and it hurt, so I was reluctant to have it again, but I'm so glad that I did because it was a really good experience," Liz said. "The girls were lovely; it was gentle, it was really excellent - so I'd recommend anyone to have it."

Liz Campbell-Pay at the Njernda Women’s Health Day.

Liz Campbell-Pay at the Njernda Women’s Health Day.

"Wearing the shawl made me feel good - I had no shame," she added. "I was proud of myself that I'd made the effort to come down and do it, and I felt better afterwards. I won't be frightened to come back."

Kristie Hearn is the Njernda Aboriginal Corporation Community Engagement Officer. "Njernda is proud to host The Beautiful Shawl's Project," she said. "This is a great opportunity for our indigenous women to have their breasts screened in a culturally safe and welcoming environment."

Kristie said her favourite part about the Beautiful Shawl Project is the feedback from all the women who come off the van.

"It's been fantastic to hear from women who haven't had a breast screen go on the van and hear they've had a fantastic experience. They come off and say, 'we're doing that again'. So that's very positive."

Megan Atkinson and Kristie Hearn from Njernda Aboriginal Corporation.

Megan Atkinson and Kristie Hearn from Njernda Aboriginal Corporation.

On Wednesday, BreastScreen Victoria, VCS Foundation and Cancer Council Victoria joined Njernda Aboriginal Corporation in their Women's Health Day. Community members had a yarn and learnt about the importance of looking after your health. Neva Takele performed a traditional smoking ceremony and BreastScreen Victoria Health Promotion Officer Danika Gasparini talked about the importance of screening, early detection and being breast aware.

Health Promotion Officer Danika Gasparini delivering a presentation.

Health Promotion Officer Danika Gasparini delivering a presentation.

BreastScreen Victoria CEO Terri Smith said it was great to be in Echuca.

"We have been told the cultural shawls provide a culturally inclusive and positive experience by Aboriginal women," Terri said. "It's important that we can reduce barriers to breast screening wherever possible because early detection saves lives."

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