Gladys had a close bond with her mother, Franca. For Multicultural Health Week, she tells their story.
“She was a very caring person, very stoic, very strong.
“She was tough.”
Franca moved from a small town in northern Italy to north-western Sydney on her own when she was only 16 years old. She was following Giordano, a young Italian man who had recently relocated to Sydney, her husband.
“She didn’t speak a word of English when she got here,” Gladys said.
She arrived at Sydney airport in the late 1950s, seriously ill due to an infection picked up on her 16,000 kilometre flight. There was no-one to pick her up; so she got a taxi to Wilberforce, NSW, to start her new life.
Despite her strength, the language and cultural change had a significant impact on her.
“It was a barrier. When people used to come to the door she would hide behind the fridge because she wouldn’t be able to speak to them.”
Gladys says there wasn’t much Italian culture in the area at the time, but gradually her mother became part of the community.
“She became more and more comfortable with the people who were familiar; we had a neighbour who began to teach her English.”
“Growing up we (the kids) used to correct her speaking,” Gladys laughs.
“And she actually liked it. It meant she was learning.”
Franca, the head of family, the strong maternal figure, would rely on her daughter again as she got older.
At 69, when Franca began experiencing vague but troubling health symptoms, it was Gladys who insisted she visit the doctor.
“We’ve learned since that it’s not unusual for people from Italy, women from Italy, to get stomach cancer,” Gladys says.
“They’re at an increased risk because of diet.”
“Growing up there wasn’t a lot of fruit and vegetables, and what you eat can play a big role in this kind of disease.”
The Federation of Ethnic Communities Council of Australia (FECCA) highlights where some multicultural communities face increased cancer risk in the 2010 report ‘Cancer and Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Communities’.
It shows rates of liver cancer, thyroid cancer, and stomach cancer in Italian communities are above the Australian average.
When Franca was diagnosed with stomach cancer, she was tough.
“She was unbelievably strong, determined,” Gladys says.
“It’s that way in the Italian culture, like it is in a lot of cultures; there’s a reliance on females in the family, and they don’t want to let people down.”
Gladys cared for her mother for two years as she lived with cancer.
She was able to help her understand what was happening at hospital, and break down language barriers throughout her cancer journey.
Gladys cared for her mother throughout her treatment, and then at home after Franca decided to stop chemotherapy.
After returning home from hospital, her care and support grew.
“When she was at home she was surrounded by her community, her Italian and Australian friends and neighbours, they were all like her family,” Gladys says.
“This was part of the Italian culture, and this is what was normal to her.”
When Franca died aged 71, two years after she was first diagnosed with stomach cancer, she was surrounded by people she loved.
“I feel privileged to be able to have cared for her,” Gladys says.
This year, Multicultural Health Week is highlighting the carers who selflessly make a difference to the lives of those around them.
There are almost 200,000 carers in NSW from multicultural backgrounds, just like Gladys.
The unsung heroes of cancer care across the state, they are being recognised this Multicultural Health Week, giving the community a chance to say "thank you".
- Through the NSW Cancer Plan the Cancer Institute NSW is focusing on improving cancer outcomes for culturally and linguistically diverse communities throughout the state.
- Find out more about Multicultural Health Week – September 5 to 11, 2016