Cancer detection and screening as a treatment for malignant cells with a biopsy or testing caused by carcinogens and genetics with a cancerous cell as an immunotherapy symbol as a 3D render.

Cerysh Sadiq Q&A: ‘Many Muslim women neglect their health’

A programme to increase cancer screening among Muslim women has received funding to expand across Scotland and north-east England. Photo by Getty Images

The alimah and medical researcher discusses her involvement in a life-saving scheme to improve cancer screening uptake among Muslim women

Cerysh Sadiq, 34, is an alimah (an Islamic scholar) and research assistant at the University of Sunderland’s School of Medicine.

In 2020, she was part of a team of researchers on a pilot project that aimed to increase the uptake of breast, bowel and cervical cancer screening among Muslim women in Scotland. The life-saving scheme has since received funding from Cancer Research UK to expand across Scotland and north-east England. It will run for three years and is being co-led by experts at the Universities of Glasgow and Sunderland. 

Regular screening can help detect these cancers at an earlier stage and reduce the risk of mortality, but women from ethnic minority backgrounds are still less likely to attend screenings than white British women. Though the NHS does not record screening uptake by religious groups, an analysis by Hyphen in the year leading up to July 2022 found that areas with the largest Muslim populations had on average a 12% lower uptake of cervical cancer screening. 

Women who took part in the pilot said the project had increased their knowledge and had a positive impact on their attitude towards screening. Sadiq spoke to Hyphen about her role in the project, the Islamic perspective on cancer screening and the main barriers to screening among Muslim women.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you tell us about your role in the pilot project from 2020?

We know there has been low uptake of cancer screening among Muslim women, but we didn’t know if it was due to religious beliefs or some other hesitation. The pilot project came about as a way to identify and tackle those barriers. 

In the first phase, we invited women to discuss how they felt about cancer screening. We found these women through adverts at local community groups and mosques in Scotland. A female GP came to talk to the women about cervical, breast and bowel cancer, about the symptoms, and the importance of screening.

As an Islamic scholar, my role was to give the women the Islamic perspective on cancer screening, how it relates to faith, and to answer any questions people might have.

What is the Islamic perspective on cancer screening?

The main thing I always say is that in Islam we are taught that our health is a gift from Allah. I explain to people that one day our body will return to Allah and we will be asked to explain how well we looked after it. Screening can pick up cervical cancer at the very early stages, even when people don’t have symptoms.

When it comes to concerns about protecting your modesty, I explain to women that if it makes you feel comfortable, you can take your own sheet to cover yourself when you get your screening done. It’s your body and your screening, so you’re entitled to do that. As long as the medical professional is able to screen properly, there’s no issue with it.

What were the main barriers to screening that you identified?

One of the main barriers was the fear and anxiety about who would be doing the screening. Usually when you phone the GP, you don’t get to pick who you will see. Most women assume it could be a male doctor or nurse. We wanted people to know that they can actually request a female nurse, that it is a reasonable request and they shouldn’t fear making a request like that.

We also saw that some women felt embarrassed about going for a screening — even when they had symptoms that suggested they should — because they didn’t want to discuss it with men in their households. Also, people were less likely to go for screening if there was a language barrier. 

Your research looks at Muslim women from the ages of 20 to 70. Did you notice different attitudes towards screening depending on age?

We saw in older women that they thought bowel cancer screening was unhygienic, so we explained the process of how to do the procedure in a clean way and how to properly dispose of screening equipment. Meanwhile, a lot of younger girls weren’t going for cervical cancer screening because of the misconceptions that they didn’t need to because they aren’t sexually active. The risk is lower if you aren’t sexually active, but it still exists.

Overall I was surprised by how many Muslim women neglect their health. They are too busy with their children, or with their families, and their own health isn’t a priority. There’s this tendency to think that if God’s affected us with a certain illness, then that was our fate. But we can’t just sit back and say everything is God’s will. 

What improvements are needed within healthcare to encourage more women to go for screening?

Leaflets about screening are printed in different languages, such as Urdu, and the NHS also has interpreters that you can request to attend your screenings. But we need greater awareness. These measures have been put in place but often the public don’t know about them. If they did, more women might come in for screening. 

Following the success of the pilot, Cancer Research UK pledged more than £330,000 to expand the scheme. What will this work look like in practice?

Similar to the pilot, we’re working with community organisations and mosques. We will run bigger workshops, both online and in person, with 100 women from Scotland and 100 from the north-east of England who are behind on their screenings. The women will then be surveyed again about their perspectives on cancer screening after six and 12 months so we can assess the impact of the workshops.

Visit Bowel Cancer UK for more information about bowel cancer, Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust to learn more about cervical cancer, and Coppa Feel for information and advice on breast cancer.

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