Black Women's Experiences With Breast Cancer Are Often Overlooked. This Plays Puts Them Front And Centre
Breast cancer will, unfortunately, affect most of us in our lifetimes. It’s the most common cancer in the UK, accounting for 15% of all new cancer cases, according to Breast Cancer UK. There are around 55,900 new breast cancer cases in the UK every year, which equates to more than 150 every day.
Despite it affecting a large proportion of women, the experiences of Black women with breast cancer aren’t widely discussed. Data from Black Women’s Rising survey found that 96% of respondents reported that they do not see women of colour represented enough in the media talking about breast cancer. Even though Black women in England have been found to have poorer breast cancer survival than white women.
Additionally, those from Caribbean and African backgrounds are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer at later stages (3 or 4) when treatment is less likely to be successful.
It’s for these reasons that Leanne Pero founded Black Women Rising, after being diagnosed with breast cancer herself in 2017.
Black Women’s Rising is a charity that offers help, information, and practical advice to people of colour who have been diagnosed with cancer.
Now, the company has come together to create Unseen Unheard, a play that highlights the experiences of Black women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer.
HuffPost UK spoke to Leanne Pero about her experiences with breast cancer, the beginnings of Black Women’s rising, and what we can expect from the play.
Pero was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017 but says that experience was quite unique as her mum has previously been diagnosed with the disease twice before.
“The most recent diagnosis was six months before my own so I was with her the whole way through,” she says.
“This meant that the hospital knew my mum and me. This meant that I knew what to ask for and what I was supposed to be checking. I was very informed and that dictated my cancer experience somewhat,” she explains.
However, she was shocked at the reaction she got from the people around her.
“My mum is mixed-race and I had people telling me that it was the white gene that gave her cancer because Black people don’t really get cancer,” she says.
“I had other people telling me I got cancer because I drank too much, or because I had business at a young age so people blamed it on the stress of the business,” Pero adds.
Additionally, when speaking to other Black women with breast cancer she found that they were getting treated quite poorly in hospitals. “We don’t really speak about cancer in our communities so it’s difficult to know what you should do when dealing with hospitals,” Pero says.
After hearing the way Black women were being treated in hospitals, she founded Black Women Rising which initially started off as a support group but now is a registered charity that helps women of colour who have been diagnosed with cancer.
“I told my mum that we should bake some cake for a small number of Black women who were dealing with breast cancer,”
“Eight women came and there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. One woman who was in 10 years of survivorship shared that her hair hasn’t grown back and she didn’t know how to deal with it because she didn’t have the opportunity to talk about it,” Pero says.
Four in ten of those surveyed by Black Women Rising who had lost their hair reported that they were not offered a free wig and over three-quarters of those reported that there was no suitable option for them.
Pero’s small idea gave this woman and several others a safe space to express themselves and that’s how Black Women Rising started. “What started out as small support groups, led to another thing and different opportunities came and here we are four years later,” Pero says.
Currently, the organisation has five monthly online support groups. Monthly in-person coffee meetings, and a bi-yearly magazine all to help and support women of colour dealing with cancer.
Now, their latest venture is Unseen Unheard: The untold breast cancer stories of Black Women in the UK – a theatre production commissioned and funded by Gilead Sciences Ltd and presented by Theatre Peckham.
Pero says that the Gilead have been massive allies to the charity and approached her around the idea of a play. “They told me that they support my work and wanted to create a bigger conversation around breast cancer and Black women’s experiences,” she shares.
The play explores the lives of six women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. “What I like about the play is that it highlights that it’s not one size fits all. The audience will get a snapshot of all the different circumstances and scenarios that most people who have been diagnosed with breast cancer will relate to,” she says.
Pero continues: “However it shows that our experiences are and will always be different to our white counterparts. Which is why it’s very important for us to have our own space whilst letting our stories be heard.”
Hopefully, this play will allow people to understand the experiences of Black women dealing with cancer. Cancer affects all races and ethnicities but it’s up to us to make sure those marginalised voices are heard.
The Play will run for four performances (Thursday 27th - Saturday 29th April; Tuesday 2nd May) with a further two invitation-only performances (Wednesday 3rd and Thursday 4th May) at Theatre Peckham.