ELATED but exhausted is how women’s health champion Kathleen Mazzella describes her feelings at being named WA Senior Australian of the Year.
Elated to be recognised, but exhausted by the years of trying to overcome the fear and stigma associated with the gynaecological issues she highlights.
For more than 25 years Kath has dedicated herself to combatting the isolation and embarrassment she encountered after she was treated for cancer of the vulva aged 39.
“A lump appeared in my vulva and four experts told me it was nothing to worry about,” she said.
“It was my mother who said it is not
normal to have a lump anywhere so I asked them to remove it.”
The shock diagnosis followed, and Kath had to have her vulva, clitoris and surrounding lymph glands removed.
“I had to come to terms with how I had been overlooked and there was no information out there – nobody was talking about it.”
Unwilling to stay silent, Kath placed an advertisement in a woman’s magazine to find others who had a similar experience.
“I had 38 replies. All these ladies wrote to me with horrific stories about what was going on behind closed doors.”
Determined to connect and empower other women, and to reduce the stigma around women’s health, Kath established the Perth-based Gynaecological Awareness Information Network (GAIN).
Since then, she has become a voice for Australian women managing polycystic ovaries, endometriosis, fibroids, menopause, sexually transmitted diseases, hysterectomies and more.
She lobbies, gives talks, runs events and has established an International GYN Awareness Day on September 10, her birthday.
The most recent day saw her judge the best Moulin Rouge themed decorated ward at King Edward Memorial Hospital. There was also a Sisters on Steel motorcycle rally.
Thanks to her courageous campaigning, the 66-year-old has a string of awards to her name, including the Medal of the Order of Australia.
However, she says awards are meaningless without action, and she still faces reluctance in the community to talk about the issues she stands for.
“I feel I have been pushing a barrel uphill for so long I am exhausted and running out of ideas.”
Kath’s Senior Australian of the Year award has given her new impetus and she hopes it will open more doors and help her find “change champions” to join the campaign.
“I am looking for ways to help drive it forward, to start conversations and spread awareness around the nation.
“There is a lot of fear still, and it is a lot of work to break down that fear. The first thing that is affected is your sex life, but people don’t want to talk about that.
“We live in a society where kids can see suggestive window displays in lingerie shops in the mall but we shy away from discussing gynaecological issues and using proper terminology like vulva.
“I feel the older generation has a responsibility to pass knowledge on to the next generation and not just shut the conversation down.”
Kath is strongly supported by her husband Tony.
“I could not have done any of this without him.”
Kath will join other state award winners in Canberra on January 25 for the announcement of the Australian of the Year awards.