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Australia records a sharp decline in breast cancer screening during COVID-19

Isabella de Luca (left), Paula Amaral, Maria Fernanda Obregon and Luciana Rodrigues Source: supplied/John Tadigiri/ Rennan Luiz

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women worldwide. But what is it like to be diagnosed with cancer and undergo treatment during the Covid pandemic?

Paula Amaral, 36, is an English and Portuguese teacher in Melbourne. She was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year. She had one question for her doctor right after she received the diagnosis.  

"‘Am I going to die from this?’, and my doctor said ‘no, you are not going to die from this'."

While the rest of the world grappled with a global pandemic, Ms Amaral was fighting her own battle.

Key Points

  • Australia recorded a drop of 150,000 mammograms for early detection of breast cancer, between January and June 2020.
  • Cancer Council Australia says screening centres are now operating in a COVID-safe way and encourages women to get screened.
  • Women from migrant communities face additional challenges, particularly due to language barriers. Cancer Council Australia has a range of awareness material in multiple languages.

She says COVID-19 didn’t really ‘register’ in her mind. 

"As I was already living the cancer diagnosis trauma, going through one of the most feared diseases in the world, in my mind COVID wouldn't do anything bad to me," she says.

Paula Amaral Cancer de Mama 2
Paula Amaral says communication was a big challenge during her cancer treatment.
Paula Amaral

However, the pandemic has affected breast cancer screening rates in Australia with a sharp decline in the number of women coming forward for screening. According to new data released by the Australian Institute of Health and Wellbeing, there have been 150,000 fewer breast cancer checks since the start of COVID-19.  

"We know that because of COVID-19, many people may not have completed cancer screening. However, the earlier cancer is detected, the better. If you have received an invitation from BreastScreen, make sure you make a booking with your local BreastScreen service," Megal Varlow, Cancer Council Australia’s Acting CEO tells SBS Portuguese.  

However, migrant women face additional barriers to cancer screening and treatment.

Ms Amaral says that communicating with doctors and plastic surgeons was a challenge for her.

“I started to study the medical vocabulary; there were terms that I didn't know even in Portuguese. I asked some questions that I am not sure if the doctor understood. They gave me a guide, a book and I studied it to find out what I had to ask on my next visit,” she says.

Cancer Council’s Megan Varlow says there is a range of awareness material in multiple languages to support people from culturally and linguistically diverse communities across Australia.

"We know that women from culturally diverse backgrounds may experience challenges in accessing health services in Australia, such as cultural or language barriers. We are passionate about reaching all Australians with our campaign messages, as every person should have access to health information that meets their needs.”

Women fighting breast cancer during COVID-19

Brazilian publicist Luciana Rodrigues is from Pelotas, a small town in Brazil's south. She moved to Sydney in 2015. 

Ms Rodrigues (43) was surprised when she received the biopsy results of a small cyst she felt in her right breast, which looked "quite harmless". It turned out to be breast cancer. 

She was diagnosed with hormone receptor-positive breast cancer in January 2020.

Luciana Rodrigues câncer de mama high res
Luciana Rodrigues: “When I lost my hair I said to myselft 'I will buy lots of wigs and be a different person everyday,' I bought 8 wigs”
Rennan Luiz

The treatment started at the height of the pandemic. She says the restrictions she faced as a cancer patient were similar to the ones everyone else faced due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

“I was told that because of the chemo, my immunity was going to be very low and that I could not go outdoors. I wasn't going to be able to take the bus, public transport, to go to work, etc. My chemotherapy was delayed because of COVID-19 restrictions," says Ms Rodrigues.

'When the pandemic hit, I didn't despair.'

She says, in a way, the pandemic helped her cope with her condition as everyone else was subjected to the same restrictions that she was facing. 

"Nobody could travel, go to friends' meetings or parties; everyone was locked up, it wasn't just me."

Brazilian International student Isabella de Luca discovered she had breast cancer in 2019, a year after arriving in Sydney with her husband, José Roberto.

Isabella de Luca and partner_Breast cancer
Isabella de Luca and husband José Roberto: 'I didn't despair, I was facing a bigger problem'
supplied Facebook

The cancer was in stage 3, hormone positive. She went through the 'standard' treatment: medication, chemotherapy, surgery, radiotherapy, but had to undergo another surgery due to a chest infection.

She says being a migrant on a student visa made the whole process more complex and expensive. But the health insurance and a fundraising campaign helped her to pay for the $100,000 treatment. 

When the pandemic hit, I didn't despair. I learned we have to dance to the music [as with this pandemic]. We don't have absolute control of everything and if you need to change the path because of something bigger, you change it and accept it and move on.

With MS Obregon's family far away in Colombia, breaking the news would always be hard.

In March during Australia's first coronavirus wave, Maria Fernanda Obregon, from Cali, Colombia, and Adair Tognon, from Brazil, were planning to move from Melbourne to Adelaide. The move was expected to speed up the process for their permanent residency after seven years in Australia.

Ms Obregon came to Australia in 2013 as an international student, and with no permanent residency, she did not have access to the JobKeeper emergency relief package.

Maria Fernanda breast cancer survivor
Maria Fernanda: 'I have to go through chemo by myself, due to the Covid restrictions, but that's ok'
John Tadigiri

When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Ms Obregon was told she had to start treatment immediately. The doctors prescribed chemotherapy for six months, followed by mastectomy, radiotherapy and hormone therapy.

With her family away in Colombia, breaking the news was hard.

"It was a complex process. But I disclosed everything thing; my mother is well informed, my family knows everything that is going on. We are in Melbourne, still in lockdown. I have to do chemotherapy alone, because of COVID restrictions, but this is the moment we are living in."

The cost of emergency and intensive treatment has brought financial problems for the couple. Their private health insurance would not cover the full cost of treatment. Besides, the couple has to pay the university fees, rent, bills and tuition.

The solution was to appeal to the Latin and Brazilian community in Australia. Friends and co-workers started a fundraising campaign on Facebook and managed to raise $30,000 against their target of $45,000.

Students like me, who also lost their jobs, who are suffering from the pandemic, helped me financially with whatever little they had - that's the beautiful part in all this madness.

"I am grateful to the Colombian, Brazilian, Australian communities for the fundraising campaign to help me with all this treatment. I don't know how long I will be without work. I still have to go through surgery and other things that I don't know, but will surely come up."

Breast cancer survivors_SBS Portuguese
Isabella de Luca (left), Paula Amaral, Maria Fernanda Obregon and Luciana Rodrigues
supplied/John Tadigiri/ Rennan Luiz

Ms Obregon says that the chemotherapy sessions are working; her stage 3 cancer has disappeared. Of the three tumours, now there are only two.

"It does not mean that I am cancer-free, but I am happy that everything is going well," she says.

Isabella de Luca has been told she is free of cancer now. She says it is important to live in the present and never fear. 

"Fear sometimes paralyses us. If you feel something is wrong, do a mammogram; the sooner you detect it, the higher the percentage of cure."

Paula Amaral moved to Newcastle in NSW, where her post-treatment monitoring continues. Her dream project that had been delayed by breast cancer has now come true. She has founded a bilingual children's community and maintains the popular 'Tia Paula Explica' (Aunt Paula Explains) page on Instagram.

Luciana Rodrigues, who 'bought lots of wigs' when she lost her hair due to chemotherapy, is now going through radiotherapy sessions. 

Ms Rodrigues is in the final stages of her treatment and says breast cancer taught her many lessons: to be positive being the main one. 

The breast screening program was suspended for a short period across Australia early in the pandemic due to concerns around risks of infection. Cancer Council Australia's CEO Megan Varlow says BreastScreen clinics have now re-opened, and COVID-Safe procedures are in place, such as spacing out appointments, keeping low numbers in waiting rooms and extra hygiene measures to minimise the risk of exposure to COVID-19.

"We encourage everyone to make an appointment if you are due. It is important not to delay any cancer screening."  

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