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Her photo exhibition “Black Women Rising: the Untold Cancer Stories” aims to empower BAME cancer patients

By Cecile Bussy

Ask Leanne Pero how she defines herself and she confidently answers: “Entrepreneur, author, mentor, community dance advocate and breast cancer warrior.”

In March 2019, she launched the “Black Women Rising: the Untold Cancer Stories” photo exhibition featuring 14 BAME women, including herself, and their cancer scars.

This exhibition aims at raising awareness about the cancer journey of BAME women. Macmillan Cancer Support reports that BAME patients often have poorer experiences of cancer services than white patients.

The idea behind Pero’s exhibition comes from the cancer stories of BAME women. She herself did not receive the support needed when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 30.

“I remember blaming myself for the cancer,” she said. “I had never felt so awful in my life. The week following the diagnosis, I couldn’t eat anything.”

Learning that her cancer was treatable gave her the will to fight. After her first bout of hair loss, Leanne went to the hairdresser with her family and friends to shave her head. “I took control of it, I didn’t want it to happen to me. If you don’t take control of the cancer, it will eat away at you.”

Leanne Pero's picture for the "Black Women Rising: the Untold Cancer Stories" photo exhibition
Photo of Leanne Pero for the “Black Women Rising: the Untold Cancer Stories” – Photo by Noam Friedman

Being in remission isn’t the end of the cancer journey

Yet, the treatment does not stop when the cancer disappears. “The all-clear doesn’t always come with a feeling of happiness,” she said. 

“I was thankful for getting my life, but I had to rediscover myself, my mind, my body, my soul, everything. My friends were not the same. My relationship with family members was not the same. I felt very crappy.”

Pero found herself in need of mental health support but could not find any. None of her breast cancer nurses had ever mentioned mental health or cancer support services like Breast Cancer Care or the Macmillan Foundation.

Psychological problems are not an issue specific to BAME cancer patients. However, Pero thinks their treatments are different because hospitals do not cater to cultural needs.

During her treatment, Kewcha could not find a suitable wig. “The NHS supplied me with one free wig. It was not at all suitable for me as a black woman; the style and texture were all wrong,” she told the Macmillan Foundation. She ended up making her own wigs.

Poor patient treatment does not help to build trust between the healthcare system and BAME communities. As a consequence, studies show that people from BAME groups are less likely to participate in clinical cancer trials due to cultural factors such as stigma and fear, lack of knowledge and mistrust in the medical system.

Pero found a community of support online when she started blogging about her cancer journey during her remission. She was shocked by the number of messages from isolated BAME women, sometimes because their community thought cancer was a transmissible disease.

“I felt it was a white person’s disease,” said Della in the Macmillan Cancer Support report. “No one of my ethnicity is ever shown as a cancer patient. I was ignorant about cancer. In Nigeria, people who have cancer just die from it. I appeared on a TV programme out there and they asked me whether I’d survived because I lived in the UK.”

Cancer awareness and help-seeking are low across BAME groups, according to the British Journal of Cancer. Pero agrees:

Through her photo exhibition, she addresses the stigma around cancer so BAME women are confident enough to stand up and say how they feel. In 2017, NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens encouraged BAME patients to help improve cancer care by sharing their experiences.

“The cancer world is white, middle-class, middle-aged women talking about cancer. Those women needed to see more people like me and find a community they can relate to.”  

Leanne Pero

Pero wants to make cancer “a topic of conversation in every household” and is currently planning a tour of her “Black Women Rising” photo exhibition around London. She has also been nominated for the 2019 National Diversity Awards.

“For me, it is so crazy that something really difficult has come out so positive. The Black Women Rising project comes with trials and tribulations, but I am thankful for this movement we created.”