Cancer is a taboo subject in some communities. This hair salon has created a safe space to talk | UK News
Bertrand Augustin’s barbershop has always been a space for talking, but recently, a subject has taken on particular importance: cancer.
It’s a cause that has become deeply personal to him after losing his father George to illness last year, and realizing the subject was difficult for many of his family members.
“I think it was taboo for a very long time,” he said.
“Especially in ethnic culture, where we tend not to discuss these things.
“When he died and we were going to give the eulogy, we were going to mention it, but we weren’t even sure the family members knew about it.”
Ultimately, they cited bowel cancer as the cause of his death, as they felt his father had been “incredibly strong”.
As part of a bigger effort to help change that taboo, he has turned his House of Bertrand studio in Bromley, south London, into a safe space to talk about the disease. It’s part of a Macmillan Cancer Support project which includes nine hair salons across London.
Lee Townsend, engagement manager for Macmillan, calls them “key pillars” of black communities, with multiple generations of the same family seeing the same barber.
“What Bertrand is able to offer with the other hairdressers involved in this project across London is time where they can freely engage in a safe environment where discussions about all sorts of things arise. and from time to time health care related issues may be elevated,” he said.
In one example of how these relationships can be so important, Lee recalls an incident where a man who had a bump was convinced to go see a doctor by his barber, which turned out to be a tumor. He then underwent radiotherapy and, five years later, he is cancer free.
One of the people who comes to Bertrand’s shop to speak out is Sean Baker.
Sean was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2018, after also having a relapse of multiple sclerosis, potentially brought on by his diagnosis.
The 52-year-old, who is a mental health nurse, then underwent a biopsy, where doctors were able to remove any cancerous cells.
He tells people it’s important to get tested early like he did.
“I tell people if you were fine before, chances are you’ll be fine afterwards. There are so many things the doctor can help you with.”
Reluctance to talk openly about cancer in minority communities is a complex issue that is linked to poorer treatment outcomes for people from non-white backgrounds.
At least 30,000 people from diverse ethnic backgrounds are diagnosed with cancer each year in the UK, according to the 2019 National Survey of the Experience of Cancer Patients in England.
This data shows that people with cancer who are black or Asian are 24% to 36% more likely than those who are white to say that their treatment options were only partially explained or not explained at all before they started.
A survey by Macmillan and YouGov last year found that people with cancer from diverse ethnic backgrounds are almost twice as likely to say they could have been diagnosed at an earlier stage if there had been fewer delays within the NHS.
Similar issues are faced by GPs such as Dr Farzana Hussain, who works at Project Surgery in Newham. She says she now refers two patients a week for cancer treatment. Many of them present their symptoms late.
Recently, she saw a middle-aged black patient with a swollen prostate and one of the highest prostate-specific antigen scores she had ever seen. She thinks some are postponing dates because of poverty.
“Newham had the highest furlough rate,” she said.
“If you’re thinking about feeding your family, maybe think about your cancer test. If you have a little blood in your pee, you might just ignore it, you might not have time to Go see your doctor.”
This, combined with issues such as language barriers and a lack of personalized support, is causing problems in diverse but impoverished regions like his.
Referring more people than ever for cancer treatment, Dr Hussain appealed to people: “Please contact us, I know people feel that doctor’s offices are closed and they don’t want to disturb the NHS, but it’s your life. That’s what we’re here for.”