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Life-saving scheme to improve cancer screening among Muslim women

by Fiona MacLeod , Jacob Smith | News

20 July 2023

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Three Muslim women talking
Shutterstock - Zurijeta

A Scottish project to encourage Muslim women to take up cancer screening invitations is to expand into the north of England with new funding from Cancer Research UK. 

The project, co-led by the University of Glasgow and the University of Sunderland, aims to reach women in Muslim communities with information to help them make informed choices.  

This follows a small-scale pilot study, co-designed with Scottish Muslim women, launched in 2020 in Glasgow.  

“Socioeconomic and ethnic inequities in cancer persist, which need tackling,” said project co-lead Dr Floor Christie-de Jong, associate professor in public health in the Medical School at the University of Sunderland. 

“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”. 

Some of the research team from the University of Sunderland. L-R-Fozia Haider, Dr Floor Christie de Jong, Dr Rawand Jarrar
Dr Floor Christie-de Jong (center) with Dr Rawand Jarrar (right) and research assistant Fozia Haider at the University of Sunderland's School of Medicine Picture: DAVID WOOD

What will the project involve? 

Screening can save lives by finding cancers at an early stage, or even preventing them. However, figures show low uptake for cancer screening among women in the Muslim community. 

The pilot study found several reasons for this lower uptake which included not knowing about the screening, feeling shy or being worried about seeing a male doctor. 

The newly funded project will run until December 2025, with the first phase providing workshops, the second administering surveys to assess changes in knowledge and attitudes towards screening, and the third to assess if uptake of screening opportunities has risen.

Workshops, both online and in-person, will include discussions on potential barriers to women taking up screening opportunities; health education sessions led by a healthcare practitioner; videos of Muslim women’s experiences of cancer or screening; and a religious perspective on cancer screening delivered by an Alimah (female Muslim scholar) Cerysh Sadiq. 

“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 about cervical, breast and bowel cancer screening,” said Sadiq, an Alimah and Research Assistant in the School of Medicine at the University of Sunderland. 

What is screening?

Cancer screening is a test that looks for early signs of cancer in people without symptoms. It is not the same as the tests a person may have when doctors are diagnosing or treating cancer.  

There are three screening programmes in the UK, bowel, breast and cervical. The eligibility criteria for each differs between UK nations. You can check whether you’re eligible for each of the screening programmes depending on which nation you live in below.  


Empowering communities 

After positive feedback from pilot participants, organisers now hope to reach hundreds more women in Scotland and the Northeast of England. 

The project’s new funding will also provide training for more women from Muslim communities to help deliver workshops.  

It is hoped the results from this project and lessons learned can help reduce barriers and increase uptake in other groups, such as male participation in bowel cancer screening or cancer screening in other ethnic minority groups.

“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,” said co-lead Professor Katie Robb, professor of behavioural science and health, at the School of Health and Wellbeing at the University of Glasgow. 

“Tackling inequalities is absolutely crucial to ensuring everyone, regardless of where they live or their ethnic background, has the best chance against cancer,” added Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive. 

“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 by catching cancer early when treatment is most likely to be effective.”