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Beliefs curse Aboriginal survival rate
Bill Hatto/WA News Sue Griffiths with husband Colin, left, and son, Boyden.

Aboriginal people with cancer are missing out on life-saving treatment because some see it as a curse that Western medicine cannot treat, a new study shows.

Called A Whispered Sort of Stuff, the report is a unique insight into what Aboriginal cancer patients need, including hospitals offering a "welcome to country" and more kangaroo meat in their meals, and being aware that some people are scared of using lifts.

Funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Cancer Council of WA, the study is based on detailed interviews with Aboriginal cancer patients.

It found treatment needed to be explained clearly and patients needed to be reassured by stories of people who had survived. Doctors and other staff also needed to be more sensitive to Aboriginal needs.

The use of medical language was "mysterious and confusing" and many patients were upset they could not have bush medicine alongside chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

"Some people incorrectly believe cancer is always a terminal illness or a death sentence . . . and fear about cancer means people may prefer to not know," the report said.

In some cases, cancer was seen as the result of a curse so there was no point seeking treatment. Many feared leaving their family and community to go to big hospitals because of the belief "when people go to Perth they come back in a box".

Conversely, other Aboriginal people saw the medical system as all-powerful and capable of curing everything so when someone died they felt let down by doctors.

"Another participant was terrified of lifts and wouldn't get into them on her own," the report said. "She had to climb flights of stairs and felt unwell going from one floor to another."

The report said many Aboriginal patients found it uncomfortable going into Nyoongar country without any formal welcome. It suggested using a DVD with a recorded "welcome to country" message along with information about the hospital.

Researcher Sandra Thompson, director of the Combined Universities Centre for Rural Health, said cancer was more fatal among Aboriginal people because they were usually diagnosed at an advanced stage, they were less likely to accept treatment and more likely to get serious cancers such as of the lung and liver.

Mother of five Sue Griffiths, 43, who was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, said Aboriginal people were often terrified of going to big cities for treatment.

"They're frightened to leave in case they don't come back, and it's often really hard for them to understand what the doctors are talking about," she said.