Luamanuvao’s Survivor Story

In June 2007, Luamanuvao Winnie Laban was diagnosed with breast cancer during a routine check. Her story is one of many brave Samoan women who have journeyed the narrow road of surviving cancer. Luamanuvao was with her husband, Dr Peter Swain, when they were told by oncologist, Dr Burton King, that they had found a tumour in her left breast. The tumour was quite close to her lung which meant it was serious and that they would look for a course of action to deal with it.

“I went with my husband, and to be honest, when I was first told, I actually didn’t hear it. Part of the shock is that you don’t hear. And part of not hearing is that you can’t believe that this is true” says Luamanuvao.

Dr King, along with medical oncologist, Dr Andy Simpson and radiation oncologist, Jamie Evans worked with Luamanuvao and Peter on a plan to move forward. She was to do six months of chemotherapy and radiation, and surgery to remove her breast (mastectomy).

“My husband took it all in; he listened very carefully to what was being said. I went home and, naturally, my reaction was I cried. Then I realised that I’ve got to come to terms with it, that I’ve got cancer and that I actually need to work out what I’ve got to do next.” Once recognising what course of action to take for her health, Luamanuvao and Peter then set out to let their close knit family know, starting with her brother Fauono Ken and his family and all of our children.

However, Luamanuvao’s greatest concern was her mother Emi, as she was old and wasn’t keeping good health. When she was told, she never showed her tears in front of her daughter but she was quite often heard saying to others, Why should her daughter go through this? And that she’d rather go through it than her daughter.

“She was always strong for me, always caring, never too intrusive and always a source of strength for me,” Luamanuvao says affectionately about her mother.

As a Samoan woman, Luamanuvao’s crowning glory and trademark was her long hair and one of the ways that Luamanuvao was able to help prepare her family (and extended family) was to cut her hair short before her treatment. This was a very significant part of the preparation process.

She says, “The cutting of the hair was a way to prepare the family. It was taking control. For Pacific women, their hair is their glory. Long hair is part of who you are and to go and get it cut was quite emotional for me.”

Luamanuvao has kept her long hair in a drawer at home. When her hair started to fall out during chemotheraphy her husband Peter then shaved her head. The essence of the engagement of her husband and family in her journey has been a significant part of her healing.

At the time of Luamanuvao’s diagnosis, she was preparing for election the following year. Although it was a challenging time, she never wavered in her determination to survive the cancer and the election. Both of which she did successfully.

Luamanuvao says it is important for Samoan women to use their natural communication strength. Women are very good at communicating with each other and sharing experiences. The respect for authority in the Samoan culture can sometimes hinder but talking about treatment and its side effects helps give confidence for others to ask questions and to talk.

Faith and culture also plays a strong part in our Samoan community to which Luamanuvao says,

“We have a strong faith,

and our love for family.

We believe in a loving God,

and we are never alone.

We can talk to God, and

talk to our ancestors, our family.

They are always with us.”