It was Martha Hancey who first spotted three years ago her older sister Cecilia had something wrong with her right breast.
Cecilia, 65, known to those in the Hancey family as Bub and to everyone else that knows her as Celia, was in the shower when Martha saw the inverted nipple.
A mammogram in the mobile caravan visiting Te Kohao Health in Hamilton East a few days later, confirmed the worst when three little dots were picked up.
Celia has an intellectual disability and for the last 15 years has relied on her sister to look after her best interests.
For Martha, who reveals there is an extensive history of breast cancer among the women in her family, that includes health checks such as mammograms.
“We went up to Waikato Hospital and talked to a specialist up there. She did a biopsy and then told us she would have to operate. Just as well, it had spread that fast, that quickly,” says Martha.
The breast was removed and Celia recovered quickly at home with Martha’s help and the friendship and support from everyone at Ngā Mara Ātea, Life Unlimited (now known as Your Way | Kia Roha) Charitable Trust’s marae-centered programme held 49 weeks of the year at Kirikirioa Marae.
People with an intellectual disability aged between 16 and 65 access the Ministry of Health-funded programme. Clients are introduced to Tikanga Māori (living by Māori values) and Te Reo Māori (Māori language) in a safe and supportive whanau environment.
Celia’s one brush with any significant illness was breast cancer and now she has been given the all-clear, she is able to stay on the programme because of her good health.
“She doesn’t have any high health needs so the ministry is happy for her to stay at Ngā Mara Ātea,” says Martha.
Celia was born in Wairoa in the Hawke’s Bay of Ngāti Kahungunu Iwi, and grew up in a large family at Raupunga, a small settlement in northern Hawke’s Bay located close to the Mohaka Viaduct, New Zealand’s highest railway bridge.
At school, Celia’s aunty was called in to see the principal who said Celia had a learning disability and they could not help her.
There was no way the family was going to put Celia into an institution.
“She was brought up with us. My father would not do that. I know there’s a lot of children who were, families were told they had to give their children up, but we wouldn’t,” says Martha.
The family, young cousins, nephews, nieces, etc fussed over Celia but she did not participate in any day programmes until she moved to Hamilton to join Martha.
“I decided it was my turn to look after her. Before coming to the Waikato, Celia did nothing, just stayed at home. I decided I was going to look at different things she could access,” says Martha.
Her first stint in a programme was promising prompting Martha to look further afield to Your Way | Kia Roha and it was then the sisters met Barbara Tane.
Barb had been a senior occupational therapist aide for 26 years at Tokanui Hospital before it closed and then worked for the Richmond Fellowship, a mental health organisation.
She joined Your Way | Kia Roha nearly 18 years ago and is now a community services facilitator.
“Martha put us through the mill. She wanted the best for her sister and we wanted the best for her too,” says Barb.
“The last 15 years (at Your Way | Kia Roha) has been an awakening for her,” says Martha.
She participates in music, kapa haka, plays the drums, weaves, sews and like others on the Ngā Mara Ātea programme, she helps out on the marae when there is a powhiri or tangi.
“Celia loves working over at the marae with the kaumatua, “says Barb. “She and everyone else know the protocol on the marae. They all know their jobs, they all know Tikanga.”
Martha, a support worker at a disability provider and Celia’s primary caregiver keeps a close eye on her progress.
“She loves cooking, drawing, she’s been learning how to read and write and she has her own bank account. I get her to withdraw her own money. The people at Westpac Bank in Frankton are used to her and they spoil her,” says Martha.
Your Way | Kia Roha was like an extended family after the breast operation, helping Celia with exercise.
Following the all-clear last year, Celia gave something back herself. She volunteered to help the Waikato-BOP Cancer Society sell daffodils outside Pak ‘n Save, Clarence Street with others from the marae and Honey Hireme, Your Way | Kia Roha Community Services community support manager.
“Celia loved getting involved in Daffodil Day,” says Honey.
“She knows about breast cancer and the scare she had so she understood by selling daffodils it was helping other women like her.”
So come Friday 31 August, Celia will be out there again symbolising all New Zealanders coming together in the fight against cancer.
She is not only living proof of that but also that an intellectual disability does not mean withdrawing from her community, says Martha.