A possum skin cloak, handmade by Aboriginal women who are cancer survivors, has been unveiled at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre as a symbol of healing and support for other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people going through cancer treatment.
The creation of the cloak was led by prominent artist Vicki Couzens and Baraparapa Elder Aunty Esther Kirby and was made using traditional cultural techniques that have been used by communities in Victoria for centuries.
Vicki Couzens said possum skin cloaks are one of the most sacred expressions of traditional south-eastern Aboriginal peoples.
“Cloaks are vessels for the body and spirit, they connect people with Country and community, and they offer pride, dignity and respect. At the same time, cloaks can be one of our most intimate belongings used in a variety of everyday activities – sleeping, wrapping babies, teaching Country and sharing stories,” said Vicki.
The project is part of a Breast Cancer Network Australia (BCNA) program called ‘Culture is Healing’, which aims to create culturally appropriate spaces in treating hospitals, to encourage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women with breast cancer to return to the facility knowing it is a culturally safe space. This in turn will increase survivorship rates amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women with breast cancer and other cancers.
The possum skin cloak will be available for use by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their families going through cancer treatment at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre. Aboriginal people will be able to be physically wrapped in culture when they use the cloak during their time in treatment.
The idea for the program came about at a Think Tank hosted by BCNA in March which brought together 48 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who have been personally affected by breast cancer. The two-day Think Tank encouraged women to share their own stories, challenges they faced and insights from their own communities. This insight was then used to discuss how outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women with breast cancer could be improved.
BCNA CEO Christine Nolan said the mission of her organisation was to create the best cancer journey possible for everyone diagnosed with breast cancer.
“Evidence-based information, programs and resources are vital to ensure people have the best cancer journey possible because it means they can make decisions about treatment and care that are appropriate to their individual needs,” Christine said.
“Support and information delivery cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach – it must be meaningful to those seeking the support and information. For this reason it’s crucial we call upon – and continue to call upon – the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who are part of our network to provide advice and background so our information and resources are relevant to those who need them,” she said.
Peter Mac Chief Executive Dale Fisher said Peter Mac was committed to providing a welcoming and culturally appropriate care environment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
“We are proud to be the first Victorian health service to have a possum skin cloak,” said Ms Fisher.
“The cloak will be available to our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander patients and their families, to promote wellbeing and provide tangible recognition of our respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture alongside our expert delivery of cancer care.”
The possum skin cloak’s creation was funded by BCNA and via a bequest to Peter Mac.