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Saving lives one wahine at a time

7 September 2017
Turanga Health and Three Rivers Medical aren't giving up on wahine who’ve missed their regular cervical smears.
Leslie Puketapu by strike web ready
Turanga Health Kaiawhina Leslie Puketapu

“I have sat with at least three women in the waiting room. And they come out and they tell me ‘oh is that all it was!’"

Kaiawhina Leslie Puketapu

Turanga Health isn’t giving up on wahine who’ve missed their regular cervical smears.

That’s the message from the Turanganui-a-Kiwa Maori health organisation as it throws itself in behind a very personal approach helping ensure women at high risk have the best chance of preventing cervical cancer.

“Cervical cancer is one of the easiest cancers to prevent – as long as we detect the cell changes that cause it, early,” says Turanga Health Community Nursing Coordinator Renee Stewart.

In the six months to June 2017, Renee and her team have assisted and supported 92 wahine whose health records showed they were at high risk of developing cervical cancer or were behind in their regular smears.

Of those 92 women: 71 were more than five years overdue for a smear (and of those, 6 were ten years overdue and 1 was 15 years overdue); 17 were not on the national cervical smear register; 3 women were overdue for a call-back smear following an earlier abnormal result; and 1 was supported for a colposcopy. 

“I really do feel that this is such a worthy programme and wahine by wahine we are making some sort of difference,” says Renee. “While there could be hundreds still out there I think getting four to five more  people a week to their general practice to be screened by a nurse is a positive outcome and a great start.”

The two kaiawhina involved in the programme are making contact with women in conjunction with partner general practices Three Rivers Medical, Te Karaka General Practice and City Medical.

The criteria for contact is women who are considered high-risk, says Renee “This is Maori, Pacific or Asian women aged 20-69; women who are not on the national cervical screening register, and or women who are five or more years overdue for a screening.”  

Renee says the age range of women contacted has been broad. “There are a quite a lot of young women who have never taken advantage of the screening, that is, they weren’t even on the register.” Anecdotal evidence suggests many of these younger women didn’t know about the programme or are whakama or shy about attending.

At the other end of the spectrum there are older wahine who we appreciate are scared, says Renee. “Perhaps they have known someone with cancer, or just don’t have enough information to feel comfortable enough to attend.”  

“Across all ages there are challenges and barriers. Some women are busy with children, others lack transport, and other times it’s just the normal trials of a busy life that prevent a woman looking after her own health.”

Kaiawhina Leslie Puketapu says encouraging wahine to have their smear isn’t always easy. “It’s especially hard when you are talking to someone you have never met before, and talking to them about something so private. The reaction can often be negative.”

But Leslie and fellow kaiawhina Sarah Brown are not dissuaded. They spend time with women, learn about their daily challenges, and support them to visit their general practice for a smear. Leslie and Sarah will even sit in the waiting room with them. 

“We know having a smear can be stressful, so we want it to be as quick and easy as possible, and if that means being a shoulder to lean on, then that’s what we do.”

Leslie adds: “I have sat with at least three women in the waiting room. And they come out and they tell me ‘oh is that all it was!’”

The Turanga Health cervical screening programme will continue for the rest of the year. Renee says if you, or someone you know has been contacted about a smear, please take advantage of the service.

“Since the national screening programme started, the number of women who die of cervical cancer has dropped by nearly two thirds. And if every woman you know got tested regularly, the number could drop even lower.”

Funding for the Turanga Health service has come from Te Pou Matakana, the Whanau Ora commissioning agency for the North Island. As part of the same contract Ngati Porou Hauora is also supporting women to have regular cervical smears, while Te Whare Hauora o Te Aitanga a Hauiti is supporting women in breastscreening.