Puapii Daniel-Ngatae calls herself a sur-thriver not a survivor.
Four years after being diagnosed with breast cancer, the Pacific Health Liaison with Waikato District Health Board’s Tokoroa Family Health team is proud to call herself cancer-free, and she is on a mission to inspire others.
“I believe that early detection saved my life, I’ve always advocated that.” Hospitals are not scary places for Daniel-Ngatae who has worked in Tokoroa’s since 1999.
So it was without hesitation that the Cook Islander went for a mammogram in March 2010.
“The [doctors] said ‘oh it looks like a little shadow in there’. They asked me to come back so I did in August and they said ‘it looks like there’s a few little lumps.”
Two months later and she was going in for an operation. “I’m so grateful…It was very quick.”
But there are thousands of Pacific Island women out there who do not have her positive approach to breast screening. And she is on a mission to change that. Doing so has just been made easier with the mobile breast screening unit now based at the South Waikato Health Centre.
This year marks the first of the annual service, as previously it only visited every two years. Now it is just a matter of getting women there, Daniel-Ngatae said.
“I’ve seen in our Cook Island community, a lot of them are very fearful. They are a generation born in the Cook Islands. I know it might sound strange but the word hospital to them means to go and die in a hospital. Anything to do with a hospital you can see them panic.”
The 62-year-old said she was lucky she was educated in New Zealand and understands that there are people out there willing to help you on your journey.
“I’d seen a lot of my cousins dying because they hadn’t gone for their mammograms. I thought no way am I going to go through that because you leave the devastation of leaving your family behind…and you could have done something positive about it.”
And she will not take modesty as an excuse either. “A lot of them are so shy about showing their bodies but I just say if you want to live then this is what you have to do…You’ve got grandchildren, pull your finger out and get going.”
Most people go through fear and hesitation, she said, but there is comfort in catching it early. ‘‘When people hear the word cancer or melanoma the Big C comes in but I just stuck to the kaupapa about ‘early detection is the best prevention’ and that sort of eased my mind and I knew I was with the right people at the right time. She is not saying battling breast cancer was an easy road to travel. Breast cancer is the most common cancer amongst New Zealand women with more than 600 women dying each year from it.
“The most challenging part was going in to the operation and seeing my husband’s face…It’s so hard for your loved ones, they’re fearful for you, they can’t help it and you see that fear.”
She said her husband used to call her a ‘‘blinkin optimist’’, but little did he know he was her rock. ‘‘You can’t put a price on [family support]. It’s so huge. We’re all just human beings and we all want to be loved and cherished.’’ It seems as if Daniel-Ngatae is trained to see the bright side of things. ‘‘I had this fantastic surgeon who suggested that I have a reduction and a conservation so I ended up with perky nanas after that…now I know why women are so addicted to surgeries for makeovers.’’
But it would be hard not to see the light after coming through an ordeal such as cancer. ‘‘You feel elated, it’s like winning lotto. I actually tell people I’ve won my lotto, I don’t need to win money, just having life is a gift in itself.” The experience has given her a new outlook on life. ‘‘When I went back to work, if had a bad hair day, I’d walk down the ward and I’d think you know you’ve been through a tough time but are you going to be a joy germ or a joy killer? Because at the end of the day that‘s all we have – love and happiness.’’ Under the umbrella of South Waikato Pacific Island Community Services, Daniel-Ngatae, with the help of others, is setting up a support group to help Pacific women. It currently has eight women and is growing.
‘‘Pacific women are very shy and we need to break those barriers so that having a mammogram will just be normal.’’
Phone BreastScreen Aotearoa on 0800 270 200 for further details or to book your appointment.