• Home
  • News
  • Navigating cancer in a pandemic: the migrant and refugee experience
Back to all 2023
03 Feb 2023

Navigating cancer in a pandemic: the migrant and refugee experience

  • Cancer Council Victoria

New research by Cancer Council Victoria has revealed the COVID-19 pandemic “exposed and deepened existing gaps in cancer care”, particularly for those already experiencing disadvantage, including regionally based Victorians, migrants and refugees.

The study, Cancer, COVID-19 + You heard from more than 300 Victorians affected by cancer to understand how the pandemic affected their cancer care and experience.

And while the report confirmed many expected problems, such as visitor restrictions, communication problems and a lack of psychological support, these issues were exacerbated for migrant and refugee populations.

According to the report, COVID-related disruptions “intensified the [communication and language] challenges for those affected by cancer” despite not being a new phenomenon. The problems with communication were aggravated further by an undersupply of certified interpreters.

Veronica Perera, Cancer Council Victoria’s Policy Manager, Strategy and Support Division, said the new findings demonstrated that the pandemic exposed access issues already embedded within the health system.

“Whilst there are minimum standards for provision of interpreters, it’s evident that these were not being adhered to prior to the pandemic, so some people relied on family members. But because visitors weren’t allowed, they lost that key person who could translate,” she said.

“One of the things that became really clear in this research is that we need to work with communities to find solutions.

"We need to acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers, and we need to work with multicultural organisations to navigate the challenges experienced by refugees and migrants undergoing care.”

The study also revealed that language barriers and the associated difficulty in interpreter access led to even greater distress among migrant and refugee populations.

“All health services were impacted during the pandemic, but people especially struggled to access mental health support. Some migrants and refugees couldn’t find someone who could speak their language, and interpreters were hard to find,” Ms. Perera said.

Amanda Piper, Cancer Council Victoria’s Head of Cancer Strategy, said while inequities facing migrant and refugee populations continue to pose major problems for health services, there is reason for optimism.

“Despite challenges such as gaps in data that can make it hard to describe inequity, what I am seeing now is more focus and attention given to all members of the Victorian population, particularly in the cancer sector,” she said.

“With Cancer Council Victoria and other cancer organisations having a commitment to overcome inequities, as well as the Victorian Government acknowledging inequity in the Victorian Cancer Plan, I believe we will continue to see improvements in access to in-language information and support.”

“That’s the call to action for all of us: to build equity into all our activities so it’s not just something we talk about on days like World Cancer Day.”

As part of the report, Cancer Council Victoria developed bespoke recommendations for each key finding, including for migrants and refugees:

  • Develop language and mental health supports for migrants and refugees
  • Investment in partnerships between the cancer sector and multicultural organisations is needed to develop culturally responsive, targeted, and sustainable mental health support.
  • Expand the capacity and capability of the interpreter workforce so that a certified, professionally trained interpreter is available for those who need one.

Read the full Cancer, COVID-19 + You report here.

Cancer Council Victoria provides information and support for all Victorians affected by cancer, including health professionals. People can call the cancer nurses on 13 11 20. Interpreters can be called through 13 14 50, simply say the language needed, and ask the interpreter to call 13 11 20. Cancer Council has also launched a new accessibility toolbar on their website that includes a screen reader, text and font changes, reading tools such as a magnifier, and can translate copy into 100+ languages.

Get the latest in cancer news, events and more, direct to your inbox
Join a network of Victorian cancer researchers, clinicians and consumers to keep your finger on the pulse.