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Hair is good but life is better


Zoe Satherley
14 August 2006
Indigenous people may be dying because they are too afraid of seeking medical treatment, according to Bundjalung woman Michelle Torrens, a Southern Cross University PhD student.

“My people are often confused by the medical system and fearful of the complex new medical treatments and technologies on offer like chemotherapy, renal dialysis and radiation therapy,” she said.

“The very mention of these words fills them with suspicion and some would prefer to go home – where they might get sicker and even die – rather than being subjected to a therapy they think might be invasive or destroy their body in some way.”

Michelle, 44, who lives on the Northern Rivers with her husband, Barry, is the mother of three boys. She has just written a book about her own recent experiences with ovarian cancer and will launch it on Thursday, August 17, at the University’s Lismore campus.

She hopes it will serve as a guide and as a talking point for Indigenous people to bring their ill health and medical treatment out into the open so they can “connect with community and receive support, encouragement and help, rather than going it alone or rejecting treatment altogether”.

Since news of her own brush with cancer had circulated in her community, Michelle said she had been astonished to find out about the number of close friends and acquaintances who had also experienced cancer or other serious illnesses.

Many were undergoing significant medical treatment with very little, if any, support – too ashamed to tell anyone.

Others had rejected appropriate treatment, believing it would not work or that it would just make them sicker and some had died because of this attitude, Michelle said.

Another problem Michelle feels is facing the Indigenous community is racial discrimination by some medical professionals.

“In my case I twice went to different doctors in great pain and with extraordinary swelling in my abdomen,” she said.

“They both said I just had a digestive problem and gave me medication to ease ‘indigestion’.

“I believe they thought of me as an overweight Indigenous woman who just brought it on herself and didn’t give me the kind of thorough check-up they would have given a non-Indigenous person.

“I lived in terrible pain for weeks until I collapsed in March this year and was rushed to hospital where a doctor examined me and immediately said she thought I had a tumour on my ovary.”

Michelle was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and rushed to the Royal Brisbane Women’s Hospital for urgent surgery.

Doctors had to make a 40cm incision to remove the watermelon-sized tumour. Michelle was 12 kg lighter after the surgery.

“It is no wonder the diet I was on wasn’t working,” she said with a grin.

Now Michelle wants to share her story with others and ‘bring cancer out of the closet’.

“I want to encourage openness, hope and create awareness within the Indigenous community, not just about cancer but about all kinds of illness and disease,” Michelle said.

“I had to face terrible fears when I was in hospital and it would have helped a lot if I had some prior knowledge of all the procedures I would have to endure.

“When they mentioned giving me chemotherapy, for example, I seriously considered not having it and just going home.

“To me, like to most of my friends, the word has very scary connotations. You think you are going to get even sicker and that all of your hair will fall out and never grow back.

“For us Indigenous women, our beauty is our hair. It is almost sacred and I didn’t want to lose it.

“In the end, I looked beyond my boundaries and found life again. Hair is good but life is better.”

Michelle will launch her self-published book, Hair is Good but Life is Better, at Southern Cross University’s Gnibi College of Indigenous Australian Peoples on Thursday, August 17 at 10.30am. She extends a warm invitation to all interested people to attend.

Picture: Southern Cross University PhD student Michelle Torrens.