The epaulettes adorning her shoulders are pink and bear the recognisable pink ribbon associated with breast cancer awareness.
‘I wore them as part of the Fly Pink initiative started by Qantas, where pilots don a set of pink epaulettes to raise awareness of breast and prostate cancer, and to raise research support for finding a cure for the disease,’ Mel shares. ‘I came across the campaign on a pilot forum and thought it would be a good idea.’
Mel joined the month-long Fly Pink campaign in October 2018. ‘I've known seven people in my life who have had various forms of cancer,’ she explains. ‘Three are walking miracles, three healed via regular medical treatments and have been given the all-clear, and one who passed away. Cancer now affects one in three adults in New Zealand, so most of us know someone who has walked through this battle in one way or another.’
Mel’s calling as an MAF pilot has brought her to Arnhem Land where she’s part of a team flying to reach 48 remote homeland communities on a regular basis. The flight programme connects communities in an area the size of Scotland and Wales and is one of the busiest in MAF with a fleet of 10 aircraft, flying over 8,750 flight legs in 2018.
MAF helps meet the many needs in communities where health outcomes are poor, and healthcare is difficult to provide. ‘Lifestyle-related illnesses appear to be more common from what I have seen,’ Mel speculates. ‘We encounter a lot of people with diabetes, and illnesses related to the heart or kidneys. I'm not sure on the statistics regarding cancer.’
Research into cancer statistics for indigenous Australians highlights lower survival rates and lower participation in cancer screening than in the non-indigenous population. A study looking at the prevalence of vulval cancer in east Arnhem Land found indigenous women were 50 times more likely to develop the condition, a rare and little-understood form of the disease - highlighting lifestyle and environmental factors, and of hardship endured by these women.
Raising awareness in this context can only be a good thing, and pilots like Mel are motivated to get the message out in the underserved communities MAF reaches by plane. By doing this, she is taking the fight against the world’s second biggest killer, to those who might be overlooked - even if, she admits, there’s never enough time in her busy day to share as much as she would like.
‘There were many who asked what it was for, so I was able to share that it was raising awareness and funds for prostate and breast cancer research. I believe the epaulettes raised awareness. Even a simple conversation regarding the reason for wearing them raises awareness in the person's mind. I intend to wear them again this year too.'
‘There were some who queried why I was the only one wearing them and not the whole team.’ she says. ‘I explained I found out last minute and hadn't had much of a chance to spread the word and encourage everyone to join in, so perhaps next year? They agreed that would be good.’
‘I came across the campaign on a pilot forum and thought it would be a good idea...’ Mel Laird