Leanne Pero was barely 30 when she discovered she had breast cancer. It was not just the surgery and chemotherapy she had to cope with that shocked her – it was also the reaction of many within the BAME community and the fact she knew so little about the disease.
She came to realise that in many BAME communities breast cancer was never discussed despite a higher mortality rate than in the white community. In fact there was often a stigma attached to it.
To fight the problem she has launched the first BAME magazine dealing with breast cancer called Black Women Rising. It is a fact and experience filled publication answering every question patients may face and distributed free of charge. It is also the name of a powerful movement that Leanne has started to support those diagnosed with breast cancer which has already been supported by the likes of Estee Lauder and ITV’s Lorraine.
Leanne, an award-winning entrepreneur and community champion, wants to build a bridge of knowledge and understanding between BAME communities and the medical institutions that treat them. She also wants to break the silence and remind young BAME women of the importance of regularly checking their breasts.
“I realised there was a problem when I was diagnosed and a couple of people stopped talking to me. At first I didn’t understand why. I also discovered lots of misconceptions about the treatments. I heard things like ‘go natural – chemo is not for black people.’
“I was a victim of sexual abuse as a child and I have had a lot of stuff happen to me but my darkest days were due to cancer. It gave me terrible anxiety which I had not expected. I had just turned 30 when I was diagnosed. I was in the prime of my life. I had just started a business management degree which I loved and my life was about having fun. I had just got back from holiday, I had released a self-help book, Take Control, about being a survivor and it was a time to focus on me and what I wanted out of life.
“When they told me I had breast cancer I felt like the only 30 year old in the world with it – I had never seen or heard of other young black girls with cancer. Some people from my community said things like it must have been because I had a party life style or that I was always stressed out due to working too hard. I felt like I was to blame and it shocked me.”
Leanne is calling on the NHS to do more to support, reach out to and understand BAME patients. One of the challenges she faced was the hospital running out of afro wigs.
“For black women hair is a big thing, it is a lot of our identity. I was told I could get a free wig from the NHS and was given a catalogue and was told there was an ‘ethnic’ section at the back of it. But then I was told they had run out of them so I had to choose from the other section of the book. I chose one but in the end I went to Peckham High Street and bought three wigs for £30 that were so much better for me.”
Leanne kept a journal of all her experiences and released it on a blog which was spotted by a breast cancer charity who asked if they could promote her writing on their website.
“I wasn’t really expecting anything to come of it but I woke up the next day to so many emails and messages on my Instagram and facebook accounts from young girls and older women, Asian and black. They said it was so good to see a brown face talking about cancer. It was incredible to read some of the stories they felt they could share with me.
“One lady said she had to go to chemotherapy, go home on the bus, pick up her kids and cook dinner because she had to keep up the façade she was ok. Some were asked not to attend family events as members were scared they would catch it.
“It brought home there is not enough awareness of cancer in the BAME communities and it could be why the mortality rates of breast cancer is higher than elsewhere.
“People say why do you make it about race and I say we are not about race but we are about shared experiences. BAME women go through different experiences due to the cultural myths and taboos. Cancer is an unspoken word in many communities.
“I want any BAME woman reading this to know we are here for her and she can contact us. I am very aware I am still trying to get over my diagnosis and every week brings different emotions or problems. The magazine is a one- stop-shop of everything you need to know. It is written for women of colour by women of colour.
“I would love medics to read it too as they will understand the kind of issues that are common in the BAME communities.”
ORDER YOUR COPY AT BLACKWOMENRISINGUK.ORG
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