Having a bit of light-hearted humour seems odd when talking to people about bowel screening, but sometimes it helps break the ice. ‘So we poo on a stick,' said one kaumātua, followed by a laugh when speaking with Te Wakahuia Manawatū Trust’s cancer team. But sometimes it’s the best way to start a conversation about a topic that can be difficult to kōrero with whānau about.

Te Wakahuia Manawatū Trust cancer team have been supporting whānau with cancer screening in the Te Ikaroa region for over 10 years, specifically the national bowel screening programme since its launch in 2017. They’ve had many conversations with eligible people and their whānau about the bowel screening test and the journey they may take, providing awhi at each step.

“We support whānau around prevention education - we take them to screenings. We believe in being the support at the top of the hill, as opposed to the bottom, and we follow that journey alongside of them,” says Te Wakahuia Manawatū Trust Cancer Coordinator, Emma Vickery.

“It can be difficult to kōrero about bowel screening, but it’s so important. We try to normalise the conversation on bowel screening. I make it an everyday conversation, chuck in a bit of humour to hold their attention and hopefully help them feel a bit more at ease.”

The team are continually looking into ways to further engage with whānau and break down barriers to access the care they need. One of these initiatives is a pilot programme they introduced in August last year to support eligible whānau who have come back with a positive bowel screening test, to prepare for the next step which is a colonoscopy.

“There’s a diet that people need to follow before doing a colonoscopy. This can be a barrier for many of our whānau due to the financial cost. If the colonoscopy failed, they would then need to return later to do it again which is not ideal,” says Emma.

“We’re creating packs which covers the recommended drinks and low fibre foods eligible whānau need to have two weeks before their colonoscopy.

“We also provide incontinence pads for those eligible whānau who have to travel far to their colonoscopy appointment. Whānau may be travelling from areas like the Tararua district which is a good 40-minute drive. They’ve been given all this liquid to drink. It’s important we maintain their dignity and uphold their mana throughout the process.”

Finding innovative approaches with an Ao Māori focus is why hauora Māori partners, like Te Wakahuia Manawatū Trust, are able to engage well with whānau on important kaupapa like bowel screening, says Te Aka Whai Ora Maiaka Hāpori Deputy Chief Executive Public and Population Health, Selah Hart.

“It’s about removing barriers so we can decrease the risk of late diagnosis for eligible whānau,” says Selah.

“Local initiatives, like at Te Wakahuia Manawatū Trust, go directly to our whānau. We know getting these kits in the hands of whānau, along with the right information and support, is a crucial factor to increasing participation rates for Māori.

“Te Aka Whai Ora is committed to continuing to support the important mahi hauora Māori partners do in bowel screening and the wider cancer prevention space.”

Last month, the programme’s eligibility age for Māori and Pacific lowered from 60 to 50 years in the MidCentral district (Horowhenua, Manawatu, Palmerston North, Tararua, and the Otaki ward of the Kapiti coast).

“By the time we're catching people in their 60s from doing the test, we're potentially looking at stage 3 and 4 cancer, where is if they’ve presented back in their 50s, its likely we would’ve caught them at stage 1 or 2,” says Emma.

“Ultimately, I’d like to see more eligible whānau engage with the programme, but we’re moving in the right direction. I’m excited to see how we can save more lives over the next few years.”