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New Funding to Boost Cancer Screening Among Muslim Women 

A project to increase the uptake of cancer screening among Muslim women in Scotland and North East England is to be expanded with additional funding from Cancer Research UK (CRUK).

The scheme was piloted in Glasgow in 2020 and received "positive feedback" from participants. The organisers now hope to reach hundreds more women from a community traditionally reticent about accessing screening.

CRUK Chief Executive Michelle Mitchell said: "We know people from ethnic minorities may be less likely to respond to cancer screening invitations, and hopefully this project will encourage more people to take up such opportunities and to find out what barriers prevent them doing so." Removing these barriers could save lives through earlier detection and more effective treatment, she said.

Building on a similar project last year to raise awareness of prostate cancer risk within the Black community in Scotland and North East England, researchers from the Universities of Glasgow and Sunderland aim to reach women in Muslim communities with information about breast, bowel, and cervical screening, to help them to make informed choices.  

Dr Floor Christie-de Jong, associate professor in public health at the University of Sunderland Medical School, and a project leader for both schemes, said: "One size does not fit all and to allow women to make informed decisions about cancer screening, we need to use targeted approaches. Working in partnership with the community and using assets from that community in a positive way can help to tackle these inequities."

Multiple Reasons for Low Screening Uptake

Figures showed low uptake for cancer screening generally among women in the Muslim community, with reasons given including a lack of knowledge about screening, feeling shy, or being worried about seeing a male doctor. 

A 2021 report by the Muslim Women's Council acknowledged a lack of awareness and that "only a few" women from Muslim communities participated in screening for breast and cervical cancer. It also cited family, culture, and religion as influences, including possible "hindrance" to participation from husbands in Muslim families. The group recommended female-only clinics, so that women could talk to their doctors more comfortably and without feeling as self-conscious.

There is a particular stigma around cervical screening, partly due to the intimate nature of the test and partly assumptions of links with sexual activity. One 2021 survey by Muslim Women’s Network UK showed that around 60% of respondents reported being "very much embarrassed", with a similar number worried about pain and discomfort, and around a quarter anxious that the test might be performed by a man.

In January this year, charity Jo's Trust attempted to increase cervical screening uptake among Muslim women as part of its annual Cervical Cancer Prevention Week. It blamed low uptake on a combination of "myths around women’s sexual health, language barriers and a lack of awareness", citing particularly "stigma around sexually transmitted infections".

Jo's Trust pointed to NHS data that showed areas of England with the largest Muslim populations had, on average, a 12% lower uptake of cervical screening than those with the smallest Muslim population. Local variations ranged from 53% in Tower Hamlets, where Muslims make up 39.9% of the population, to 78% in North Yorkshire (78%), where Muslims comprise less than 1% of the population.

Empowering Women in Muslim Communities

CRUK is now providing £337,485 to fund the pilot expansion. Project co-lead Katie Robb, professor of behavioural science and health at the School of Health and Wellbeing, University of Glasgow, said that the pilot scheme had been "well received" and the new funding would enable the team to expand the scheme to reach more women.

“Our aim is to empower women in Muslim communities with the knowledge they need, as screening can be crucial to detecting cancer early when it is most treatable with the best chance of a successful outcome.”

The first phase of the project will include:

  • Workshops, both online and in-person
  • Health education sessions led by a healthcare practitioner
  • Videos showing Muslim women’s experiences of cancer or screening
  • A religious perspective on cancer screening delivered by a female religious Muslim scholar

After this, phase two will involve surveys to assess women's changes in knowledge and attitudes, and phase three will assess whether screening uptake has risen. The project, designed with Muslim women in Scotland, will run until December 2025.

Alimah Cerysh Sadiq, a research assistant at the University of Sunderland, which is also involved in the scheme, said: "Women can be uncertain as to how screening fits in with their faith, and it will be a great privilege to help guide women and assist with any religious concerns they may have."

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