An Illawarra cancer survivor who has dedicated her life to supporting migrants improve their education and health has been recognised for her leadership and impact on the local community, but despite the countless volunteer projects and initiatives she’s already involved in, her sights are already set on the next big thing to help change lives.
Nyan Thit Tieu migrated to Wollongong from Burma in 1977 and has spent her career teaching English to newly arrived migrants in Wollongong and Sydney.
“All my life I’ve worked with the multicultural community with a range of nationalities, so my heart is there,” Thit said.
After more than three decades with the Adult Migrant English Program, she was ready to slow down but not far into her retirement, Thit received a shock diagnosis.
“It was in 2013 when I was diagnosed with cancer and I was very very lucky that it was my second last mammogram checkup where they picked up there was something right at the back so they caught it quite early, so that was a blessing.”
Throughout her extensive treatment of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, Thit experienced more challenges than most.
“Being a little migrant woman there were a lot of things that I had to face, people not paying much attention to you or people just assuming that you won’t speak the language.”
And although she saw plenty of other women from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds while she was in hospital, when she later sought further information on how best to improve her health they were nowhere to be seen.
“When all the treatment was finished I started to do more research and read up about how I can take care of myself for my survivorship, so that the cancer won’t come back,” Thit said.
“I attended every possible information session, training session and things like that but everywhere I go, I was the only person from the CALD community.”
She realised there was a gap in services and arranged meetings with key stakeholders like Wollongong City Council, Cancer Council and the Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District to tell her own story and be a voice for others in the community.
“I said if I have that much problem can you imagine those women who can’t speak the language who haven’t got the health literacy, how would they cope with all this?” Thit said.
After speaking at an event, Thit was encouraged to start a group to address the demand within the multicultural community, and with the support of other women the Sisters’ Cancer Support Group was launched nine years ago as a safe place to be educated and share their stories.
“We meet monthly and every month I try to give them more information on health and cancer awareness and I invite service providers who can come as a volunteer and talk about things,” Thit said.
The group participate in martial arts and breathing techniques, social sessions and even retreats and the approach to education is modified to best connect with participants.
“What I found is that telling them and having notes and things doesn’t work, they need something hands-on that they can see,” Thit said.
“If I print off some information and give it to them they say, ‘No, show us.'”
Thit’s dedication to the group and her community has earned her many accolades including Wollongong’s Senior Citizen of the Year award and the NSW Multicultural Health Community Service Consumer Representative of the Year award.
In recent weeks she was also acknowledged at the Community Industry Group Service Awards for her leadership in the very small organisation category.
“It is such a big acknowledgement, a huge acknowledgement for our group,” she said.
Only a fortnight later she was one of three community members acknowledged for her work in the community at the Courage to Care exhibition.
“I got a surprise and shock when they gave me this award,” Thit said. “I was very very honoured, very honoured.”
Now she has her sights set on a new project, creating culturally appropriate information and sessions for newly settled refugees to help them better understand cancer and what services and supports are in the local community for prevention, treatment and recovery, by adapting trusted westernised materials.
“What I can do is look at all the evidence-based resources that are available for cancer resources and all of that and work with these refugee groups and codesign these things and say, ‘Is this OK for you?’ or ‘How would you like it to be presented?'”
“Even simple things like for breakfast, I can talk about my Burmese culture, for breakfast you talk about bread and butter and eggs and all sorts of things. In their culture they would just eat rice with a little bit of dried fish or peas which is perfectly OK.”
Her proposal was chosen from projects right across the country to receive support from a national funding body.
“The fact that we got the Cancer Australia fund I just could not believe it, I’m still pinching myself,” Thit said.
“It means that the work is needed and particularly working with groups like this has never been done before.”
And while that will keep her busy for the next three years, Thit continues to dedicate her time to develop new groups and opportunities for the community like the Social Women’s Intercultural Friendship Tricycling (SWIFT) group to promote inclusive physical activity and socialisation.
“It covers health, it covers CALD, it covers cancer survivors, it ticks so many boxes,” she said.
She is also trying to reform a group she started years ago, I-WIN, the Illawarra Women’s Interfaith Network to help people of different faiths connect within the community.
Thit’s own faith continues to be a driving force behind her kindness and determination.
“I was born in Burma but my faith is Islam,” she said. “And in my faith what we are taught is that one of the five most important things to do is God provides people with different capacities, so those who have should always support and help those who don’t,” Thit said.
“Giving to the needy is drummed into my head.”
And she’s vowed to continue giving back to the community for as long as she is able.
“As a child and growing up I got so much opportunity to be educated and to know these things and not everyone gets that opportunity but I was so this is now my time to give back.
“My promise to the gentleman upstairs is that I will do this until the day you call me back.”
To find out more visit the Sisters’ Cancer Support Group website.