Understanding Cancer Radio Programs


This 9 part series explores the foundational concepts required to understand how cancer forms, as well as general symptoms and treatment options. Yolŋu Matha with some English.

Yolŋu Matha with some English

This 9 part series explores the foundational concepts required to understand how cancer forms, as well as general symptoms and treatment options. Presented by Dr Alyssa Vass and Yolŋu consultants Yurrandjil and Wäŋgarr.

Cancer - part 1 of 9 - Common Cancers

This program explains that “cancer” is one type of disease, but can be in any part of our body. Yurranydjil and Wäŋgarr explain this using a metaphor of “Yolŋu” - Yolŋu are one people, but there are many clans who live in different places. The most common cancers in Yolŋu communities are introduced - for men: lung, colorectal, liver (prostrate is one of the most common but the women could not talk about it on air for cultural reasons); for women: breast, lung, colorectal and “women‘s” cancer (synonym for cervical and uterine). A metaphor is used to describe these ’common cancers‘. The yolŋu terms used is maraŋu mala¬ wäŋa, meaning that most yolŋu live in the major communities (the most common cancers are in particular places in our body) but some Yolŋu live in homelands (There are other less common cancers in other body parts). (Length 7:56)

Cancer - part 2 of 9 - Risk

The concept of “risk” does not appear to exist in Yolŋu worldview as an abstract, and there are apparently no words that directly translate for risk, danger or safety. Therefore, a metaphor was developed involving a potential “dangerous” or “risky” activity - the risk of buffalo attack whilst walking through the bush. The signs of high risk are discussed - such as being close to fresh buffalo dung, or seeing or hearing a buffalo. It also talks about being dhudi-dhäwumirr knowing what to do in this situation, such as stand very still or run to a particular type of tree. This metaphor is then applied to risky behaviours (or “risk factors”) such as smoking, drinking alcohol, eating high meat diets, or having cancer in our family, are like being near a buffalo and continuing to walk casually. If we become dhudi-dhäwumirr about cancer, then this can help prevent us from getting cancer. (Length 7:44)

Cancer - part 3 of 9 - Summary of 1 and 2

This short program summarises what has been discussed in the previous two programs in a succinct way. (Length 2:49)

Cancer - part 4 of 9 - Symptoms

This program outlines cancer symptoms. The most common cancers and their corresponding specific symptoms are discussed first, in a way that links the symptom with the disease process. Lung cancer symptoms can be a chronic cough, coughing up blood, trouble breathing. Bowel cancer symptoms can be constipation or bleeding from the bottom. Breast cancer symptoms can be a lump, discharge from the nipple or changes in the skin or nipple. General symptoms of cancer are also discussed in detail - feeling tired or weak, losing weight, loss of appetite. Sometimes there are no symptoms at all which is why the clinic offers regular check-ups for women and men. It is important to catch the cancer early so go for check-ups or if you have any symptoms, go to the clinic. This way, the cancer may only be small and may be more easily cured. (Length 10:56)

Cancer - part 5 of 9 - Cells

This program introduces and explains the concept of “cells” in Yolŋu Matha - all living things including humans are made up of millions of cells; there are many different types of cells that join together to form the different parts of our body; cells can only be seen with a microscope. Cells were discovered by scientists relatively recently whilst looking at plants under a microscope. They called them “cells” (mungurr mala) because they looked like little rooms. Yurranydjil explains that borukpili, a native fruit, is made up of small segments joining together, this is used as a metaphor for how cells join to form one “organ” or body part. Cells are alive and are constantly replicating. We see this if we cut our skin, the skin cells replicate and grow to join the skin back together. Each cell has a specific job, depending on what type of cell it is - heart cells contract so that the heart can “pump”; there are red blood cells and white blood cells. (Length 8:44)

Cancer - part 6 of 9 - DNA

This program introduces DNA and builds on the information about cells in the previous program. DNA is inside all the cells in our body - it controls what type of cell each cell will be and controls the work of the cell. It is also responsible for cell replication. DNA and cells can only be seen with a microscope, not with our eyes. A possible Yolŋu term for DNA is introduced - wäyuk djinaga‘puy - which means the inside law of the body. Scientists have found out that DNA has a “pattern” - much like the colour patterns of wäyuk (ceremonial law strings) have coloured patterns that encode the law of the clan. The pattern on the DNA likewise encodes the “law” of the cell, and thus directs what work it does.(Length 8:28)

Cancer - part 7 of 9 - Breaking DNA

Following on from the previous two programs, this program explains that Cancer is a disease of cells and DNA. Briefly re-explains that our whole body is made of cells, and in each cell is DNA which controls cell replication and the cells individual work. If the DNA is broken, then it can‘t work properly, and the cells replicate out of control. The metaphor is used that if the coloured pattern on wäyuk strings is broken or out of correct order, then the law of the clan cannot be kept and trouble results. If one cell starts replicating out of control, because the DNA inside is broken, then eventually the cells build up and become a lump - this is cancer. (Length 8:28)

Cancer - part 8 of 9 - Lung Cancer

This program explores what damages DNA. It begins with lung cancer; the smoke from cigarettes contains many “chemicals” or “poisons” that damage DNA. It explains that tar, the black fluid that is often depicted in lungs on cigarette packet pictures, contains many poisons that break DNA, and soaks into the lungs. Smoking is a ’risk‘, as is walking around near fresh buffalo dung (due to the potential of getting chased by a buffalo). Similarly, excessive alcohol consumption over a long time can damage DNA in liver cells, causing liver cancer. The poisons of cigarettes and other things can also damage DNA in other parts of our body. Lung cancer is very common in Yolŋu communities because many Yolŋu smoke cigarettes; Wäŋgarr explains that many Yolŋu don‘t have the dhudi-dhäwu - the deeper story about how smoking causes cancer. Less non-Indigenous people smoke and hence less get or die from lung cancer. (Length 10:27)

Cancer - part 9 of 9 - Treatment

This program explores three types of treatments for cancer - operation, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Chemotherapy is very strong medicine - it‘s a fluid that is given IV (into our veins). It destroys cells that are “out of control” - cancer cells (damaged DNA). We can feel sick, tired, lose our appetite or our hair may fall out from chemotherapy because the medicine is so strong and is working hard to make us better. Surgeons will take out the cancer lump by an operation. Sometimes patients need an operation and chemotherapy because there are cancer cells left in the body that are too small for the doctor to see and cut out - chemotherapy will destroy the left over cells. The other type of treatment is radiotherapy - which is like a laser. The cancer lump (the cells) are “burnt” or destroyed by the radiotherapy. This treatment can only be used on the main cancer lump and not on our whole body like chemotherapy. If we get cancer, these treatments can cure us and we can live - especially if we go to the clinic or hospital early. (Length 10:59)

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