Debbie Ngarewa-Packer: Māori in fight of our lives against cancer


It is said that crisis creates heroes, it shakes us into action. Where we each try to make our own way through it, crisis often reveals how strong we can be when we have to be.

Nowhere do I see that strength more present than with whānau contending with cancer.

Whānau have demonstrated that with every action, desperately innovative and co-ordinated, and have used their own experiences to help everyone else.

As we saw with our beautiful Talei Morrison who, while confronting aggressive cervical cancer, led a “call to action” Smear Your Mea campaign educating high-risk communities and highlighting the importance of smear testing. Talei has left a legacy that benefits us today.

Many whānau create pages on social media sharing first-hand what it is they have to endure, unselfishly ensuring we become aware of the symptoms as they post photos of them holding up a vomit bowl for their 9-year-old son enduring chemo. Sharing the heartbreaking decisions they have to make as parents determining which treatment will give their child a higher chance of long-term recovery.

On the ground, we see every effort being made to help lift the mauri of the individual, the whānau, and the community. Over the last few months I have grieved with whānau who have watched their 22-year-old daughter die, their 19-year-old son, young rangatira who we expected to have on the paepae for many years.

And as I cry, hope and pray with them, using words like “fight”, “journey” and “strong” feels so useless. Cancer is so brutal. And while cancer does not discriminate, the health system does. When Māori women are dying seven years sooner on average than our Pākehā counterparts, the age criteria for cancer screening should reflect that. But we haven’t managed to change that through the health system. Still, Māori women are four times more likely to die from cervical cancer than Pākehā women. The Māori cancer leadership network, Hei Āhuru Mōwai, is committed to eliminating these cancer inequities between Māori and Pākehā.

I cannot ignore the glaringly wide inequities and financial struggles that whānau face while the Government drags its heels.

Patient Voice Aotearoa chairman Malcolm Mulholland has advocated for an increase in Pharmac’s budget to provide funding for life-saving drugs to New Zealand patients. Mulholland’s message to politicians is that Pharmac is severely under-resourced by comparative international standards.

Because Pharmac does not fund these potentially life-saving drugs, whānau currently are forced to access the private market and obtain them at exorbitant prices.

Why don’t we have a government that’s bold enough to address this issue and support whānau who are dealing with cancer?

I’m a firm believer in the power of people. If given the ability to, we can work together to address crisis – iwi-lead responses to Covid-19 across Aotearoa have proven that.

One thing Covid-19 has taught us is when we face a crisis, we must do all that we can to protect our whakapapa.

Cancer equity is in crisis and we must surely look for the path of compassion, courage and understanding.

Last week the Hon. Kiritapu Allan announced the “fight of her life” against stage 3 cervical cancer, bringing to rise the importance of listening to our bodies. Kiritapu also raised her reluctance to being tested – it’s an invasive procedure. Surely the time for HPV self-testing is upon us?

I have no doubt that through her courage in sharing her story, Kiritapu will inspire and save the lives of many wahine Māori.

Today, as I write this, I sit at one of my marae mourning the loss of a beloved rangatira, another taken by cancer – a humble leader who committed his life to serving his people.

My plea is that we take lessons shared to listen to our bodies, to encourage each other to get tested as soon as possible and together lobby for equity and better support for those confronting the biggest battles of their lives – cancer.

Debbie Ngarewa-Packer is co-leader of the Maori Party

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