MICHELLE Wilkes has a mission.
The Aboriginal cancer liaison officer with Manning Hospital's Cancer and Palliative Care Service is determined to raise cancer awareness within the community and encourage people to get checked if they suspect they have any early warning signs of the deadly disease.
She's also dedicated to supporting all Aboriginal people and their families from the point of diagnosis in addition to highlighting cancer screening and prevention.
"I think it's a privilege to be able to work with people diagnosed with cancer and to be able to support them through their journey. It's about time for Aboriginal people."
The position has initially been funded as a six-month pilot project as part of the Manning Cancer and Palliative Care Service's broader strategy to identify the gaps in cancer support and services for Aboriginal people.
Since April, Ms Wilkes has been working in the Manning and Great Lakes region to better support Aboriginal people diagnosed with cancer and reduce the impact of the disease on their local community.
"It's important that we engage with the Aboriginal community about the importance of a healthy lifestyle and of cancer screening, as well as linking them into cancer care services in the acute sector and services available in the community. It's critical that Aboriginal people are supported at all stages of their cancer journey," Ms Wilkes said.
"The role provides Aboriginal people with a clear point of contact to help them access mainstream cancer and palliative care services to improve their cancer journey."
The role is part of the Hunter New England Health Cancer Network's commitment to improving access to cancer prevention, screening and treatment services for Aboriginal people, in an effort to close the gap in health and wellbeing between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.
Currently there is a 12 year gap between the life expectancy of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.
"There's an identified variation in outcomes for Aboriginal people diagnosed with cancer, with cancer mortality rates 1.5 times higher and survival percentages 1.3 times lower than non-Aboriginal Australians," Ms Wilkes said.
"Aboriginal people diagnosed with cancer between 1999 and 2007 had a 40 per cent chance of surviving five years compared to non-Aboriginal people who had a 52 per cent chance of survival."
Ms Wilkes works alongside clinicians including local GPs to provide a critical link and referrals to services in the community.
She said the community response to her role has been "absolutely amazing" and she has been very busy.
"We are trying to fit two years worth of work into six months.
"Our biggest concern are males and also educating people about the symptoms and raising that awareness in the community.
"The most important thing is early detection. Come in and get checked if something is wrong - men and women, it doesn't matter what age."
She is currently the only Aboriginal health cancer support officer in the Hunter region.
"Taree is leading the way."
Ms Wilkes is delighted to see a cancer forum take place in Purfleet this Tuesday (see separate story), which is the first time the hospital has taken a clinical team (oncology) into the Aboriginal community.
Among the special guest speakers is Manning Hospital's general manager Tricia Bulic.
"The Manning Hospital is committed to the development of a culturally safe partnership with local Aboriginal communities," said Ms Bulic. "We offer equality to access to health care that contributes to the improved health status. Manning Hospital aims to remove the barriers that have been created over past generations."