Play tackles cancer taboo

Despite all the advances in treatment, cancer remains a scary word for many people.



In some communities, that fear can stop some people from attending early screening programs.


A program funded by the New South Wales Cancer Institute is attempting to raise awareness of the benefits of early screening and prevention through a series of theatre shows.


Peggy Giakoumelos reports.


On Railway Parade near Rockdale station in Sydney’s south, the sound of chanting creeps through the door of a Macedonian church.


The local Council says around five per cent of Rockdale City’s residents speak Macedonian at home, compared to the Sydney average of less than one per cent.


It’s a fitting place for the church which sits near the neighbourhood shopping strip.


The strip is now spotted with southeast Asian restaurants, reflecting a more recent wave of migration.


At the back of the church, a multicoloured marble floor and staircase leads to a theatre space.


Groups of Macedonian-speaking actors have gathered to rehearse a play.


The play is about cancer and it’s being put on as part of a government-funded project to encourage people in the Arabic, Greek and Macedonian speaking communities to go for early screening tests.


Astrid Perry is the Manager of the Multicultural Health Service for the southeastern Sydney Local Health District which is coordinating the project.


She says an evaluation of an earlier theatre program about stigma and mental health showed it was an effective way of targeting some communities.


Astrid Perry says with this project, they’re trying to break down the idea that cancer can’t be treated and is something that should be hidden.


“Well it’s probably the same as what it was some years ago in all communities because it’s potentially fatal and people are very scared of it and in some communities people would rather not know what the future holds, and also they may think that is a god-given reason and I just must accept my fate. Also people don’t want anyone else to know so the family does not lose reputation or something like that.”


The Cancer Institute of New South Wales says on average, one in two men and one in three women will be diagnosed with a form of cancer in their lifetime.


Cancer is now the largest cause of disease in Australia and research has proven that early detection and screening programs significantly improve outcomes for patients.


But there’s still a stigma and Astrid Perry says her service has had to be creative because mainstream campaigns don’t always work for everyone.


“These plays they have a comedy angle, so they’re not just something boring. And people enjoy having a night out and they also enjoy listening to their own language. There’s very few times that they have events that are in their own language. It’s really something quite special – people dress up for it and it’s a real community event.”


The play in Macedonian is called ‘Wrestling the Bear’.


It focuses on two Macedonian-Australian men dealing with cancer


Vasko Srbinovski is one of the actors in the production, which is the latest in a string of similar education projects dealing with issues such as domestic violence and drug and alcohol abuse.


“I play the main character in this play. The play is about two families. Their children marry and my part of the family takes care of their health issues and has regular checkups and the other part is quite the opposite to that. So when you tackle heavy subjects such as cancer and drug and alcohol in the past, it’s a very difficult thing to put on stage, because you have to firstly provide the information to the community and secondly it has to be entertaining.


Dushan Ristevski is the writer of the play.


He says with a strong history of theatre-going in Macedonia, it’s something the community really enjoys.


“We did another project which was addressing depression and anxiety in older generation in older people so we called it Old And Happy, so we wanted to bring people out from isolation to encourage them to participate in groups. To go out and to enjoy themselves, it doesn’t matter about the age or the illnesses. The message was go out and enjoy yourself fully. Australia is giving you many opportunities, just use that. So that’s a project we did for elderly. We found out that Macedonians are not using the screening services – the lowest number of screenings – so we believe it’s important through the theatre to promote the screening.”


Focussing on two families, where both of the fathers have been diagnosed with cancer, the play centres on how each man responds to his diagnosis.


One is ashamed of his illness and keeps his diagnosis to himself, not even telling his wife or children, while the other is open about his illness, getting the support he needs.


Dushan Ristevski says he focused on men because it’s men who are less likely to get early screenings for a range of cancers and more likely to keep any subsequent diagnosis to themselves.


“We’re trying to portray men who are very stubborn and we’re trying to break the stubbornness in the community. Men they want to keep things quiet within themselves. It doesn’t matter if they have illness or mental illness, which this guy also has depression, because this guy is suffering from cancer he also has depression. All these symptoms are not recognised by his partner. So my focus was on men, but there are also lot of messages for women and for breast screening for instance, and culturally men tend to keep things quiet, they tend to keep things to themselves and the results can be traumatic.”


The three plays will run in Sydney from May until July of this year.


DVDs of the plays will also be produced and distributed to cancer services across Australia.



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