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Connecting community with cancer care

Kylie Smith and Jiv Muthunesan are working to bridge the gap.  

A smiling man is sitting on a low wall. He wears a tshirt and pants with a scraf depicting Aboriginal art. Next to him stands a smiling woman also wearing a scarf depicting Aboriginal artwork.
SydneyConnect Image: Pitta Pitta man Jiv Muthunesan and Ngemba woman Kylie Smith are connecting community with cancer care as the District's Aboriginal Cancer Care Coordinators. 

Kylie Smith has come full circle.    

A proud Ngemba woman who grew up on Gadigal land in the heart of Sydney, Kylie helped her mother and grandmother navigate the healthcare system through their respective illnesses and cared for them both palliatively.    

That experience prepared her for her new role as one of Sydney Local Health District's two Aboriginal Cancer Care Coordinators, a new position that was co-designed with extensive community consultation.   

"I often have people say ‘It must be so hard, you're dealing with chronic illness and death’ but at the same time, it’s really cathartic for me and bittersweet," she said.   

"I've walked this journey with my own mother and grandmother and cared for them palliatively until their last breaths."   

Kylie and her colleague, Jiv Muthunesan, a proud Pitta Pitta man from the Boulia community in Queensland, help Aboriginal patients who are seeking cancer treatment access healthcare to support better health outcomes, ensuring they get culturally safe care from the right people at the right time and place.    

They accompany patients to appointments, help them to understand medical language, make sure they're properly informed about and prepared for treatment, link them to support services and help them overcome barriers to accessing follow up care.   

Kylie explains the transition from personal to professional has helped her to heal and find a deeper purpose.    

"As hard as it was for me initially to walk the corridors and be on the wards, the same wards that my mother and grandmother were on, it's quite a healing experience for me, and I know that I'm where I'm supposed to be," she said.    

Several months into the role, she is helping patients to find a balance between the Aboriginal model of health and wellbeing, which takes a holistic view to encompass the physical, social emotional, spiritual and cultural wellbeing of the whole community, and Western medicine.   

"I love my job because despite the reasons for us coming together, all of our patients have a good story to tell," she said.  

"They are knowledgeable survivors and warriors of darker times and to be able to walk alongside them on this very difficult health journey is an honor and privilege.  

"First Nations people are not a homogeneous group, so I am always learning new things from our Elders especially, for example the different bush medicines there are from differing parts of New South Wales. 

"It's just that sitting with people, having a yarn, reminding them and myself about our Aboriginal culture." 

Within the District and across Australia, Kylie and Jiv acknowledge their roles are significant pathways to building trust between their community and public services.  

“When I saw this role, I just thought it was my job to help out community and be that representation and say, ‘Cancer is not always a death sentence’, help them with their medications, with their appointments and really educate them on the importance of continuing with their cancer care,” Jiv, a former nurse, said. 

Bridging the connection between Aboriginal people and District health services and prioritising their health and wellbeing is something Jiv is keenly aware of when working in community, particularly around young people. 

"There's been a couple of patients where I've been there even for family conferences, and just me being there to advocate as a young, proud Aboriginal man, they can see that there are Blackfellas in the system working with the multidisciplinary teams to get the best possible results for the patients.  

"We're building trust and community engagement and trying to make a difference."