Three wāhine receive cancer research awards

Coma patient in hospital coronavirus infected and recovering
Photo credit: Getty Images

By Pokere Paewai of RNZ

Three Māori researchers are receiving funding for their research into improving cancer care and addressing health inequities which see cancer disproportionately affect Māori.

Te Kāhui Matepukupuku o Aotearoa (the Cancer Society of New Zealand) and Hei Āhuru Mōwai Māori Cancer Leadership Aotearoa partnered three years ago to award Māori cancer researchers to address health inequities.

One of the researchers receiving the award is paediatric dietician Alexis Ross, whose PhD research focuses on co-designing a prehabilitation pathway for children with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.

Ross (Ngāti Kahungunu) is a newly registered Māori dietician, she said it was a massive privilege to be selected.

"To have that support of an organisation recognising that your research and you as a researcher they feel like your project and your work is worth being recognised and supported which is really a lot to take on."

Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) is the most common childhood cancer diagnosis, treatment for ALL is long (two to three years) and children can face many nutrition and lifestyle (physical activity and mood) challenges during treatment.

Ross has both a personal and professional perspective on ALL, after her cousin's diagnosis showed how complex the impact of child cancer is.

She said her research was about providing support and intervention proactively before it was needed, with the aim of designing a support pathway to support children and whānau early in their cancer diagnosis.

It was also about ensuring equity gaps between Māori and non-Māori were not widening, she said.

"Are we providing enough cultural supportive care that is really helping whānau during treatment and is meeting their needs."

Ross said it was "disheartening" to see recent diagnosis data revealing significant differences in the survival statistics of Māori children and young people compared to non-Māori.

"Somewhere along the treatment pathway we are disproportionately not meeting the needs of Māori."

Another recipient, Maria Marama (Ngati Whakaue, Tuhourangi) will explore traditional and complementary approaches to breast cancer treatment for wāhine Māori, for her Master's project.

She said Māori women had high rates of breast cancer and she wanted to learn more after surviving it herself.

"I've had breast cancer and my journey through the medical system was an okay journey because I was in the private sector, but I know that my experience is very different from Māori women in the public sector."

Marama said she wanted to look into traditional treatments, such as rongoā Māori, that whānau can use to tautoko, to support the women in their lives who are going through cancer treatment.

"I'm also using and still learning about our traditional ways of doing things, still getting mirimiri and things like that and our whānau need to know that actually that's okay to do. So those are the things that I want to look at in my research."

Marama said if there were more Māori researchers working in this field they would better understand why wāhine Māori were not getting diagnosed early or not seeking treatment.

"If there are Māori researchers researching our people I think you'd probably get a different way of doing things and a different way of conducting research. Certainly there aren't enough researchers looking at breast cancer for Māori women."

Marama said that was why she was excited to be working with the third award recipient, nurse consultant Stella Williams-Terei (Te Rarawa, Te Aupōuri, Ngāpuhi).

Williams-Terei's research aims to explore the experiences of Māori cancer nurses and build greater understanding of the contribution Māori nurses make in cancer care and navigation.