Self-collection kits could help Australia eliminate cervical cancer

Sean Dondas and his brothers were left in foster care when his mum Saluna died of cervical cancer. Pictures: Elesa Kurtz, Supplied

Sean Dondas and his brothers were left in foster care when his mum Saluna died of cervical cancer. Pictures: Elesa Kurtz, Supplied

Canteen board member Sean Dondas was only 16 when his mum Saluna died of cervical cancer.

When their father wouldn't take them in, he and his two younger brothers were left in foster care.

The now 28-year-old has accomplished a lot since then - a master's degree in national security; a demanding job in the APS; a role on the board of Canteen; fulfilling, lifelong friendships.

But there's still an emptiness.

"When I graduated high school, mum wasn't there. When I went to uni, mum wasn't there. Graduation, I didn't get to share that," Mr Dondas said.

"When I got my first real full-time job here in the public service in Canberra, that was one of the best days of my life, but bittersweet knowing that mum wasn't around.

"[She wouldn't] know that all the sacrifices that she'd made, it was worth it."

Only 12 years after Saluna died, the Department of Health has declared Australia on track to become the first country in the world to eliminate cervical cancer.

The medical services advisory committee recently recommend the government make self-collection universally available.

This a method of testing where people swab themselves with stick, like one used in a Covid test.

According to the Royal Australia College of General Practitioners, 80 per cent of people who develop cervical cancer in Australia are under-screened or never screened.

Mr Dondas' mother relapsed when he was only 14, leading to years of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hospice care.

"She was really hard on all of us that we had to step up and be prepared for a time that she wasn't going to be around. You know that the end is coming, but you don't know when exactly," he said.

"That was probably the hardest point, knowing that it was coming."

He said the support of children's cancer charity Canteen got him through.

"It was somewhere I didn't have to pretend or hide how I was feeling about my mum's cancer diagnosis," he said.


A recent study by University of Melbourne researchers suggested self collection could increase detection rates in people who have avoided testing altogether.

It is currently available to women over 30 who are at least two years overdue for their cervical screening.

While pap smears are no longer used, most women are tested for HPV through a cervical screening, in which a practitioner will open their vagina with a speculum.

Many people are uncomfortable with the procedure - this may include people from culturally diverse backgrounds, queer people, those with disabilities or who have have experienced sexual violence.

University of Melbourne researcher researcher Claire Zammit said testing with self-collected samples can be as accurate as cervical screening.

"It's a game changer, if anything, like it could be the way we actually reach our screening targets," she said.

Ms Zammit said when caught early, cervical cancer was "extremely treatable".

"In a country like Australia, if it's caught early, you wouldn't die from it. It's definitely a preventable cancer," she said.

This story Australia on track to eliminate cervical cancer first appeared on The Canberra Times.