If someone would have told me years ago that there was a chance I’d be diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer at the age of 30 years old, I shamelessly admit- I would have been the first to start laughing. Breast Cancer at 30? Surely that’s not possible? That’s way too young? that type of stuff only happens on TV right?. Like most people my age- I liked a drink and had an occasional cheeky cigarette from time to time but generally I was a fit, active, busy, happy, healthy social butterfly- living out the best year of my life so far- the dirty 30s! (as some might call it) and I certainly wasn’t holding any prisoners- holidays, parties, dinners and a new sense of confidence and direction were serving me well so far. It had been MY year to start a fresh after going through some serious difficult teenage years continuing into most of my 20s – as a child sexual abuse victim, regular depression and anxiety sufferer and more recently nursing my mum through her second diagnosis of cancer it was meant to be my time to LIVE! but unfortunately for me- life had other plans and on the 20th October 2016 when I popped to my local hospital to get the results of a biopsy they had taken from a lump on my breast the week before- I was told the worst news I had ever received in my life time- the breast lump, they thought was just a cyst, was actually cancer. Stage 3 breast cancer.
“How much more can a person take, why does life keep throwing these things at you” were the words of my older sister through tears, the day I returned home from the hospital after my diagnosis and for the first time in my life, I was speechless from the shock. In all honesty, my initial thoughts were that after all I had been through this was just one battle I couldn’t fight, it seemed too tough even by my standards. Never the less, in the weeks and months that followed my diagnosis although horrendous, I did fight. I actually fought the hardest battle I had ever fought and got through it, the shock, anxiety, panic attacks, sleepless nights, 6 months of chemo, the 3 operations, the removal of both my breasts, the Herceptin injections- the lot- I done it and on the 29th June 2017, I got given the all clear.
Amazing news, right? It was the best news, news that a year earlier I could have only dreamed of receiving but I just didn’t feel ok, and the realisation that my mental health had taken a huge battering because of my cancer ordeal came down on me like a ton of bricks. So, I decided to go back to the hospital for answers- was there anyone I could speak to about this? Was I normal to feel this way? but my questions fell on death ears as it soon became apparent the emotional support I was promised at the start of my treatment- although very much needed now, was practically non-existent- so I began blogging about my cancer experiences online in order to reach and connect with other members of the cancer community, I was left overwhelmed by the huge outpouring of admiration from fellow cancer patients, particularly BME females like myself echoing my experiences with the inadequate emotional support and referral services offered by the hospitals they were being treated at and the general lack of acknowledgment and disregard for their individual as well as cultural needs.
Traumatised by their ordeals, most women i spoke to were seriously suffering- not just during treatment but many months, even years after. I soon became an ear for many of these women, and was presented with stories from women who had been banished from their families and communities because of their cancer diagnosis, those who were told cancer wasn’t a black disease, women who had family members disappear from their lives because they were too scared that they may catch it, women who had been told their cancer was a curse/ karma for bad things they had done in the past, many women who had lost their hair through treatment and didn’t receive their free wig they were entitled to because their hospital had run out of the wigs in the “Ethnic Section” and more shockingly women who were advised against vital lifesaving cancer drugs because they were ungodly. The judgement and stress put on these women had led to severe depression, permanent hair loss and even suicidal thoughts to name a few. Where was the targeted help for these women?
After a deeper look in to this, further findings suggest the NHS know this is an issue, according to a NHS publication, published on their site in 2017, they have evidence to suggest that these cultural stigmas/ taboos and general myths about cancer amongst various BME communities stops individuals from talking about their experiences- often completing their treatment without giving the vital feedback the NHS so desperately need in order to successfully cater for the needs of these individuals emotionally and physically. Two quotes from that article include:
BME patients are less likely to give feedback about treatment, making it difficult for the NHS to identify areas where care can be improved”
Simon Stevens- NHS England- Chief Executive
The NHS needs to know more about the experience of black and minority ethnic people who have cancer treatment in order to ensure services understand their needs”
Lord Victor Adebowale, NHS England- board member
I knew change had to come. How can these services cater for us if they don’t know enough?
In March 2018, I set up The Leanne Pero Foundation to house various cancer initiatives aimed at mentally supporting the cancer community during and after treatment. My first project- Black Women Rising was born a few weeks later- a FREE, safe, friendly- open access meet up group – aimed at getting more BME female cancer patients connecting and talking about our cancer experiences- to aid our recovery process, spread some much-needed cancer awareness amongst our communities and educate some of the UKs leading cancer care organisations including the NHS about our needs. My first group was oversubscribed and the mission was clear – cancer needed to become part of the wider conversations within our BME communities.
Today on world cancer day I’m happy to announce the start of those conversations and on the 27thand 28thMarch 2019 I am holding two previews of the UK’s first ever Black female cancer exhibition featuring exclusive portraits of 14 phenomenally brave women of colour who I have met along my cancer journey and who have voluntarily agreed to bare naked and showcase their bodily scars inherited by their disease, shot by world renowned photographer Noam Friedman of Brightrooms in Peckham. The exhibitions, that’s will take place at the award-winning Copeland Gallery in Peckham, will also feature a live panel talk with the ladies, addressing their individual experiences, fears and hopes for the future. The exhibition is FREE for the Public to attend and is being backed by the UK’s leading Breast Cancer charity- Breast Cancer Care.
What’s the day to day mental reality battle for someone living with a cancer diagnosis during and post treatment? Well if there anything like myself and many of the ladies I am blessed to work with, huge victories for us consist of getting through our days successfully reassuring ourselves that our cancer is NOT spreading any further than where it is or is NOT returning and seriously believing we are NOT going to die anytime soon, not to mention getting 5-6 hours of uninterrupted sleep without waking up in cold sweats dreaming about hearing bad news in smelly hospital consultation rooms.
We must face up to the likelihood that cancer is something that will affect us all either directly or indirectly at some point in our life time. So, let’s use this world cancer day to start the necessary conversations about cancer awareness within our households, because cancer doesn’t exclude regardless of race.
(Main Pic: Me in my limited-edition Hunter Original for Langham Pink Wellington boots. raising vital funds to combat Breast Cancer)