Labour MP and Minister of Conservation Kiri Allan. Photo / Kiri Allan, Facebook

The Cancer Society is praising Labour MP Kiri Allan for bravely speaking out about her cervical cancer diagnosis and encouraging women to get regular screening.

But a gynaecological oncologist told the Herald it was a reminder that New Zealand urgently needed to change its method of screening cervical cancer to catch those most at risk.

Dr Ai Ling Tan said usually when patients saw her with advanced cervical cancer they hadn’t been screened for a number of reasons.

“Cultural barriers is a massive issue … some might have always put their family first or had a bad experience or been raped, or abused. You don’t know how many people who have had that experience. They don’t share that until after they get cancer.”

Tan said New Zealand desperately needed to introduce HPV primary screening which was less uncomfortable and meant women could test themselves.

The testing was recommended by the World Health Organisation and had been adopted by many other countries including Australia, she said.

Tan said 50 per cent of patients with cervical cancer had not been screened.

“We need to acknowledge the difference in culture and speak the same language, speak their language, not our language.”

Cancer Society’s Dr Rachel Nicholls echoed Tan’s comments adding that HPV screening tests were meant to be replacing the existing smear test but this had been delayed for another few years.

“This still requires sampling in the same way but it is a more effective test. It will reduce the testing requirements to once every five years for most women.”

“We know that cervical cancer can be eliminated,” Nicholls said.

The society also pointed to a 2019 Victoria University study which found whakamā (embarrassment/shyness/reticence), lack of time and fear of discomfort and pain were the most common reasons for not attending regular cervical screening.

For now, Nichollas said: “Having a routine smear is one of the most important things you can do to prevent or find cervical cancer early”.

The #smearurmea campaign was also trending on social media with many sharing messages of support to Allan while urging women to keep up to date with their screening checks.

The Minister of Conservation revealed this morning that she was “one of those gals that hates anything to do with ‘down there’. And have taken a ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ type approach to that part of my body.”

Kiri Allan fronted a tsunami warning press conference on the day that hospital tests confirmed a 6cm tumour.
Kiri Allan fronted a tsunami warning press conference on the day that hospital tests confirmed a 6cm tumour.

Allan said her last smear test was when cervical cancer campaigner Talei Morrison led a Aotearoa-wide cervical screening awareness campaign targeting Māori women in 2018.

Morrison died at age 42 in June 2018 after being diagnosed with stage 4 cervical cancer.

Last year, during the election campaign, Allan noticed she was getting a lot of pain in her back, stomach and legs, she said.

“I put it down to lots of driving, working long hours and the general stress of campaigns etc – so, I got my partner to give me a few mirimiri and forgot about it.

“Earlier this year, I realised I was finding it hard to sit for a lengthy period of time. Always in a bit of pain. I started running to try and move the lower back area a little bit. Nothing seemed to take the pain away.”

She said she put off going to see a doctor, telling herself “that stuff usually sorts itself out”.

But after four weeks, she said she went for a check-up at the GP, who put her on some medication.

“At about six weeks of menstruating with no change since the GP visit, I raised it with my colleague and friend Ayesha Verrall, who is a doctor, asking if the bleeding was a little odd.

“She asked a few more questions and I told her about the pain. She urged me, pleaded with me: ‘Kiri, please, please, please prioritise this and go to the doctor tomorrow.'”

A 6cm tumour was discovered the day Allan fronted a nationally televised press conference on the latest tsunami warnings.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed this morning that Allan will undertake a leave of absence while she undergoes medical treatment.

Speaking to the media, Ardern said she found it “remarkable” that Allan was leading NZ through a Civil Defence emergency while dealing with her diagnosis.

“If only people knew what else she was dealing with.”

About cervical cancer:

• Cervical cancer develops from the tissues of the cervix. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina.

• Each year about 160 women develop cervical cancer in New Zealand. Of those, about 50 die from the disease.

• Cervical screening is free in New Zealand every three years from the age of 25 to 69.

• The most common symptoms of cervical cancer is bleeding from the vagina at times other than when you are having a period, pain during sex, or in your pelvis.

Who can give me a Cervical Screening Test?

You can get a Cervical Screening done by a doctor or nurse at a:

• General practice (GP)

• Family planning clinic

• Sexual health clinic

• Community health clinic

• Women’s health centre

For more information click here.