Robert Salt was born in a small country town called Brewarrina, population 800. His father, Robert Salt Snr, is of English and French ancestry and his mother was Evelyn Barker, a strong and well-respected woman whose cultural connections were Muruwari, Kunja and Wiradjuri. Growing up, Rob always respected and acknowledged both sides of his heritage, but was especially connected to his Aboriginal culture.
His mother was very connected to her Aboriginality, as well as to creating social change in her community. She grew up on the Barwon Four Aboriginal reserve where she experienced “what many people only read about in history books.”
Robert’s mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in December 2013 and passed away “on a beautiful Saturday morning” in January 2014. The passing was only a matter of months after her initial diagnosis and came as a great shock to Rob and his family, as well as their local community within which she was so well-regarded. Rob says she was his “family’s cultural connection, which is now forever lost.”
Until their mother’s passing, Rob’s family had no direct experience with cancer and were not prepared for how physically and emotionally taxing the journey would be for them all. He said that he would have definitely benefited from more knowledge around what his mother was going through and how to best assist her:
“I definitely reflect on what could have been done for myself and my family, and thinking back I can’t really recall there being a lot of assistance or a lot of information provided, and as I said earlier, I like to consider myself someone whose well-connected and I vaguely knew there were some support groups, but if I didn’t ask those questions, if I was just a normal run-of-the-mill everyday person I probably wouldn’t know unless it was offered… so in relation to my personal journey, yeah, someone could have been more forthcoming of what’s available and who was there to have a yarn to because even now I have questions about why it happened so quick and why she was in a lot of pain and what’s all these medications that haven’t been answered.”
Robert’s mother would have been better supported through her cancer journey had there been an Aboriginal person in the oncology section; not necessarily someone with an oncology background, but someone who was “strong in their Aboriginality, community-oriented, grounded and knowledgeable about cancer and the supports available” to reduce the physical, emotional and spiritual stress on Rob, his mother and their family.
“We need someone who if they were going to work specifically on cancer as an issue, is to have flexibility. They might need to work outside of hours, they might have to work on the weekends and they might get calls Sunday evening to pop around and have a yarn to someone, so they need to have not so many boundaries put in place. Unfortunately cancer and peoples’ support needs don’t occur between 8.30 and 5pm Monday to Friday, it’s often in the evenings or at night or on the weekends when people are lonely and have had time to think.”
Rob and his sister have both agreed since their mother’s passing that having an Aboriginal person supporting them through the cancer journey would not only reduce the stress on them but also make the experience more culturally appropriate. It would mean that “other hospital staff would get to understand our cultural connection to extended family and why it’s so important to have them present.” The hospital policy of only having two family members in the room doesn’t take into consideration the size of Aboriginal communities and families and why it is culturally and spiritually necessary for them to be present. Having an Aboriginal person to communicate this to other staff would have ensured that Rob’s mother and family got the treatment and support they deserved.
“It’s quite a large issue, but if nothing is worked upon and addressed … our communities won’t get the treatment and support they deserve.”
Rob is now working with Cancer Council NSW to advocate for an Aboriginal cancer workforce. Strengthening the Aboriginal health workforce is crucial if we are going to close the cancer morbidity gap, but also to ensure that the cancer journey is made culturally safe for Aboriginal people.