September, 25

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women left behind in Australia’s cervical cancer elimination


Mother-of-two Ashlee Williams knew something was wrong for about two years leading up to her cervical cancer diagnosis.

The Wadi Wadi, Wandi Wandian and Dharawal woman kept going back to her GP looking for answers, but said she kept being turned away.

“I was extremely fit and healthy, played representative sport — played local club sport, hockey, touch football and soccer,” Ms Williams explained.

“I just had this gut instinct that something wasn’t right. I wasn’t well.”

Late in 2014, Ms Williams begun feeling more lethargic and bleeding heavily, so she switched doctors and reached out to a specialist.

“I was pretty much ticking everything off the list on the Cancer Council website that relates to cervical cancer,” she said.

In 2015, at the age of 26, Ms Williams was diagnosed with stage three cancer and told she might not live to spend Christmas with her family.

She had an aggressive 5.8-centimetre tumour on her cervical walls, and the cancer had started to spread through her lymph nodes and cervix.

‘I shouldn’t be here today’

Ashley Williams gets chemotherapy in a hospital.
Ms Williams is in remission after being diagnosed with stage three cancer.(Supplied: Ashley Williams)

After an intensive period of chemotherapy and radiation treatment, Ms Williams — against the odds — is now in remission.

She’s sharing her story in the hope it will inspire Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to talk about their cervixes.

“Talking about our cervixes and getting pap smears is an uncomfortable topic and we need to make it not uncomfortable.”

Ms Williams wants to get rid of the “shame factor” around cervical cancer.

And she’s not the only one.

Australian National University senior research fellow Lisa Whop is Australia’s leading authority on cervical cancer control in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.

Dr Whop, a Torres Strait Islander woman, was one of the lead authors on a new study in the journal Preventative Medicine that found Australia is on track to be one of the first places in the world to eliminate cervical cancer.

But First Nations women are being left behind.

Research shows ‘stark’ divide

Dr Whop and her colleagues reviewed data from four high-income colonised countries, including Australia, looking to identify how each country was performing in its cervical cancer rates.

They found cancer disproportionately affected Indigenous women, families, and communities.

Megan Smith, a senior research fellow at Cancer Council NSW who was also a lead author of the study, says the rate of cervical cancer for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander woman is more than twice as high as the rate for non-Indigenous women.

And the rate of deaths from cervical cancer is about four times as high.

Dr Whop described the gap as “highly unacceptable”.

“It really demonstrates the system isn’t working,” she said.

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Dr Lisa Whop says cervical cancer disproportionately affects Indigenous women.

Australia as a whole is on track to eliminating cervical cancer in its general population within the next decade.

“That means a public health problem is controlled and kept at a very low level,” Dr Smith said.

“It’s not like a virus where you can eradicate it and it stops existing.”


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