Padmini Peris has been diagnosed with breast cancer twice. Today, she’s a driving force behind breaking down cultural taboos about cancer, and encouraging more women to have breast screening mammograms within her community.
Having escaped domestic violence in Sri Lanka in her 20s and working hard to start a new life in Australia, Padmini’s strength and determination have deep roots.
The 59-year-old senior medical scientist and Sydney resident counts each day as a blessing.
So, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer just before her 43rd birthday, Padmini was determined to stay positive and be upfront about her diagnosis.
“When I was first diagnosed (with breast cancer), I wanted people to know it and also wanted to talk about it hoping that other women would get the screening done without delay,” she says.
“I wanted to use my diagnosis as a tool to educate other women.”
Padmini explains how modesty, some cultural beliefs, prioritising family, and negative connotations with cancer can impact screening in Sri Lankan women.
“People often keep it hush, hush (in Sri Lanka)—they isolate themselves when they have cancer,” she says.
As a result, she says women in Indian and Sri Lankan communities in Australia are less likely to talk about cancer or attend a breast screening mammogram.
The numbers support this – women from Indian and Sri Lankan backgrounds aged 50–74 have lower mammogram rates than the general population in the same demographics in Australia.
Campaign for change
Padmini became a part of the Pink Sari project to share her own experiences and help women in Indian and Sri Lankan communities realise that a cancer diagnosis does not have to be shameful or life-threatening.
Pink Sari and women like Padmini are helping the community to understand how early detection of breast cancer can provide the best outcome – that regular breast screening is an important part of life for all women over 50.
As it stands, one in eight women in NSW will develop breast cancer in their lifetime, and the risk of developing breast cancer increases with age.
The Pink Sari initiative started with the aim of changing attitudes to mammograms among Indian and Sri Lankan communities.
New data shows that it’s working – by June 2015, the rate of Indian and Sri Lankan women aged 50–74 having mammograms in NSW increased by eight per cent on the previous year, with numbers continuing to rise.
Associate Professor Dr Nirmala Pathmanathan, Service Director at Westmead Breast Cancer Institute, says addressing the cultural stigma around cancer in many Indian and Sri Lankan communities was key to improving screening rates.
“Consultations with the targeted communities revealed that the biggest barriers to breast screening were negativity and a ‘culture of silence’ on breast cancer with women aged 50–74,” she says.
“This provided a better understanding of the important role of breast screening in early detection of breast cancers, providing women with less invasive treatment options and better survival outcomes.
“We were overwhelmed by the outstanding support we received from Indian and Sri Lankan breast cancer survivors and their families who volunteered their personal experiences,” Dr Pathmanathan says.
Padmini says today she sees more Sri Lankan women in NSW getting mammograms.
“With today’s treatment options in Australia, I feel blessed to be living here.”
She’s been through a lot – numerous surgeries, three doses of chemotherapy, two sets of radiation – but she’s focused on moving forward.
“Sixteen years after being diagnosed with cancer I am still working full-time, volunteering and travelling, and living life to the fullest,” she says.
She is a trained volunteer support person for Cancer Council NSW, has completed TAFE training to support women undergoing domestic violence, and is a member of the South East Asian Women’s hub for Enterprise, Leadership and Initiatives.
“I want people to know that cancer is just another hurdle to jump over and if we can face it strongly, we could beat it and get on with life,” she says.
“With my experiences, if I could assist to save lives or at least be part of educating others, it would be worth going through all the hardships.”
Pink Sari operates with support from the NSW Multicultural Health Communication Service in partnership with the NSW Refugee Health Service, University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and BreastScreen NSW, with funding from the Cancer Institute NSW.
Visit the Pink Sari Facebook page for the opportunity to volunteer and get involved in the community initiative.
Women aged 50-74 can call 13 20 50 to book their free mammogram, or visit Breastscreen NSW.