At just four years of age, Zahriya Leaoasoma lost her mother to breast cancer.
Now at 25, just one year shy of the age her mother died, Zahriya has decided to commemorate her mum in an emotional way – by shaving her head to raise funds for breast cancer research.
Hair is considered tapu, or sacred, in Polynesian culture, and Zahriya, who holds the title of Miss Samoa Victoria, wants to use her platform to raise as much awareness as she can within the Pasifika community.
“I’m feeling so overwhelmed, but definitely empowered having a bald head,” she told SBS News on Saturday after her head was shaved.
“It’s definitely bringing up these new meanings of beauty. I feel like hair carries around so much expectation but I feel really good right now.”
Zahriya said she thought of her mother as her locks were shaved off.
“She was 26 when she passed away, so I only had her for four years,” she said.
“Most of my life I’ve spent without her. That’s why this event means so much to me”.
While Zahriya wants to raise awareness and money for research, she is also hoping to break down misconceptions when it comes to breast screenings.
She said she has noticed misconceptions within her own family.
“In my own experience with my family, my aunties, my uncles and my grandma, when there is something wrong or when they feel something wrong, they aren’t usually the ones to go to the doctors to see it, to get it checked out.”
“Hopefully after this event [and] trying to raise awareness about breast cancer, it will help our Pasifika communities realise that no matter what age you are, it is definitely important to go get checked.”
In Australia, women over the age of 50 are encouraged to have a mammogram every two years to screen for breast cancer.
Monika Latanik, manager of Multicultural Health NSW, says misconceptions when it comes to breast cancer screening is prevalent within multicultural communities.
“The biggest one is these communities don’t have a concept of prevention,” she told SBS News.
“For a lot of women, they don’t feel comfortable to book the appointment. They don’t know what their experience is going to be like.”
Ms Latanik says grassroots initiatives such as Zahriya’s have the power to make the most change.
“It’s because the word of mouth is the best way we can promote every service. It’s the leadership that comes actually from the community which is the most important, more important than we as a health service can offer.”
“It’s role modelling from the community that helps women do the next step and learn positive health behaviours.”
Nicholas Wilcken, director of medical oncology at Westmead Hospital in Western Sydney, says early detection makes a real difference.
“On average, if women have breast screening, we are likely to find cancers earlier than we otherwise would have and that makes them easier to treat,” he said.
However, when it comes to the Pasifika community, Dr Wilcken says there’s limited research in relation to breast cancer.
“Most of the research to date has been either in the US focusing on the Hawaiian population or in New Zealand focusing on the Maori population, so there’s definitely room for us to do more in researching.”
Zahriya says cancer does not discriminate and she doesn’t want any other girls to lose their mothers at a young age.
Being a role model herself, she thinks she can have an impact on her community.
“I have the honour and privilege of having a platform specifically for our younger girls. It’s so important because I get to spread awareness,” she said.
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