Randa Kattan has been chief executive of the Arab Council of Australia for over 15 years.
Her passion lies in social justice and improving the lives of the Arabic community.
But a decade ago, Ms Kattan’s own future prospects were looking ominous.
“Back in 2007, I felt like a pain going right through me. And that led me to examine my breasts. And I found a lump, and I could swear that it wasn’t there yesterday (the day before).”
A mammogram and ultrasound diagnosed the lump, initially believed to be a cyst, as breast cancer.
It was aggressive, capable of spreading to her whole body, but Ms Kattan says early detection allowed it to be quickly removed — and saved her life.
“In my case, it’s extremely lucky that I found it when I did, and (it’s) extremely crucial that it is detected very early, because the survival rate … I’m 10 years down the track, and I’m around to tell the tale.”
Breast cancer is the most common cancer among Australian women.
But recent figures show more than 9,000 from New South Wales’ Arabic community alone have not been screened in the past two years.
That has prompted Breast Screen New South Wales to launch an awareness campaign to highlight the importance of getting screened.
And Randa Kattan is a leading voice behind it.
“I think it’s extremely important that we tell the others, and, when I found out the numbers and that we are under-represented in screening and so they don’t take up that free option, that’s quite alarming — to find out that there is screening available and people are not taking up that option. It could save lives.”
Campaign director Naomi Combe says she thinks the best way to raise awareness is from woman to woman.
“So what we hope to do is engage with women, especially using champions from their own communities, to talk them around and explain to them that there is no need to be concerned about the various different barriers and to work with them so that they understand the most important thing to do to look after their health is to screen regularly, every two years, to give themselves peace of mind and to make sure that they’re looking after their health.”
The director of the Breast Cancer Unit at Sydney’s Westmead Hospital, Dr Nirmala Pathmanathan, says many of the barriers are myths.
A key one, she says, is that breast cancer is a “white woman’s” disease.
“First of all, they think to themselves, ‘Well, we don’t have a family history, this is not a common disease for us, it doesn’t affect us — it’s a white woman’s disease.’ Secondly, they may feel that their role as a wife and a mother takes precedence over their own health, so they won’t take the time to actually come and have a mammogram. They may also feel that, you know, ‘I don’t have a lump in my breast. I don’t need to have this test. I’m perfectly well, why would I need to have this test?’ And also there’s the stigmatisation around cancer. So there’s this misconception that breast cancer is a fatal disease — it’s got the c-word, the cancer word. But in reality, it’s highly treatable, particularly when it’s picked up early.”
But cancers can sometimes be as small as a grain of rice, and experts say only advanced technology and equipment in hospitals and breast clinics can detect them.
Mammograms are free for women between ages 50 and 74, and Dr Pathmanathan says women should take advantage.
“Cancer is not the death sentence that we used to believe it is. It is definitely an eminently treatable disease, and we’re very lucky in Australia with the wonderful medical facilities we have. We have one of the highest survival rates from breast cancer in the world.”
Arabic women have also attributed issues like poor English skills, embarrassment at having to expose their bodies and fear of the actual test for their reluctance at getting screened.
But Naomi Combe says breast-screening sites offer services to ensure the patients’ comfort.
“The actual breast x-ray is very short. It’s a matter of seconds, really. And all the way through at all points, women are made welcome, and we explain what’s going on. So, before women actually have the procedure, somebody explains to them how it works, how it happens. As we said, they can always have an interpreter with them — we provide interpreters free of charge. Or they can bring a female friend along, and then the procedure itself is very short. Once it’s over, women are told that they’ll receive their results within the next two weeks or so, and then, hopefully, for them, that’s it for another two years.”
As for Randa Kattan, she says she hopes, by sharing her story, she will help many other women live long enough to tell their own.
“I’ve gone through it, and I’ve got a story to tell. It is extremely valuable for other people to understand that cancer is not a death sentence. While none of us are leaving this Earth alive, we still can do something about it.”