Leanne Pero was diagnosed with breast cancer at just 30 years old. Now in remission, she is determined to support others going through the trauma and now shares with Melan Magazine her story on how battling cancer impacted her mental health.
Leanne Pero is an inspiration. She is a multi-award-winning entrepreneur, author, mentor and philanthropist. She is also a survivor of breast cancer. Following her diagnosis and treatment, Leanne is now thankfully in remission. A tireless campaigner and activist, Leanne uses her voice to raise awareness about mental health and support for Black, Asian and minority ethnic female cancer patients and survivors, eventually founding her platform, Black Women Rising.
During her cancer battle, Leanne discovered a lack of physical and emotional support being provided to Black cancer patients. This situation could be a reason why there is generally a lack of awareness within the Black community on cancer signs and symptoms, which could also lead to outcomes of late-stage diagnosis and higher mortality rates than in white people.
“Leanne discovered a lack of physical and emotional support being provided to Black cancer patients.”
Leanne’s platform Black Women Rising has been helping to quash this narrative through working with large brands in campaigns to showcase women of colour. The project has also launched a weekly podcast and their magazine named Black Women Rising Magazine, to empower Black, Asian and minority ethnic women as they navigate their cancer journeys.
An important aspect of people battling cancer that is largely unspoken about is how it impacts mental health.
A recent study, the 100 Women Survey by Black Women Rising found 46 percent of women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer were not offered any counselling or therapy by their healthcare team. Another statistic revealed that 46 percent of women of colour were told “I don’t think it’s cancer,” by healthcare professionals; as well as more than one third of respondents unable to find women of colour to relate to once diagnosed and 96 percent of respondents feeling they were underrepresented in the media.
To shed more light on the subject, Leanne bravely shared her personal experience of bad mental health in her cancer journey in a bid to show anyone reading this and going through something similar that they are not alone, and also what they can do to tackle it.
Read Leanne’s story of how battling cancer impacted her mental health issues while dealing with the aftermath of cancer.
“Being told you’re in remission is a privilege, it really is. If you’re one of those that are lucky enough to be told that, your whole life changes again. The doctors and the nurses go away, you no longer have the adrenaline-filled momentum of ‘keep up the fight, keep up the medication, keep up the treatment, keep fighting’. For me from this point, it’s where I struggled the most.
It was at this point where I realised, I was no longer the same person. I knew I was never going to be, but I really struggled. So many people were saying to me “you’ve been given another shot at life, why aren’t you happy?”, but I remember at the time feeling so broken, and isolated by it, and I also hid how I really felt from others. For me during treatment I lost a lot of friends, because cancer became almost like this elephant in the room that made a lot of people distance themselves from me.
I also had to get over this thought that my body had failed me. From my particular cancer treatment, I had to have both of my breasts removed, and I just thought “how am I going to explain this to a future partner?” I was also thinking about the fact that I’ll never be able to breastfeed my children, and how my periods hadn’t come back and I never went through any fertility preservation. For me, I came out of cancer not feeling like a woman anymore. It was almost like who is this person?
“It was at this point where I realised, I was no longer the same person. I knew I was never going to be…”
There were times I thought I was going crazy. There were times where I convinced myself that I was being ungrateful for feeling bad, and there were times I woke up and didn’t want to get out of bed and I couldn’t make sense of why that was, and I felt bad for it.
I went to one support group after treatment, that was attached to my hospital. When I walked in the room, I saw a group of women that were a lot older than I am. I was even asked by the group facilitator, “what are you doing here? Have you come here for your mum?” I said, “I’ve come here because I’m a cancer patient”, and she said, “you look far too young to be in here.”
I didn’t go back to that group after that session, and I didn’t have any further support after my cancer beyond that group. There wasn’t any mental health support, and I never got told about anything. When I went back to the hospital and told them I was struggling I was told “you’re a smart girl, look on the internet there’s plenty out there.”
It’s also the constant fear of cancer reoccurrence that plagues you daily and is crippling. It steals your joy and comes in waves, and it is something that’s never left me. About a year ago I said, “a successful day for me is when I get through the day without thinking I’m going to die,” because I had convinced myself that my cancer was going to come back. Even now I wake up in the middle of the night after having a bad dream with night sweats because I worry about reoccurrence.
“It steals your joy and comes in waves, and it is something that’s never left me.”
When I used to speak to friends about this and they would say incredibly unhelpful things like “the more you think about cancer, the more it’s going to come back,” and that I was “overexaggerating and overthinking”, and “needed something to fill my time up.” I remember this one moment post-cancer where I lived on a hill, and I was driving my car and thought ‘If I drove myself to the bottom of this hill, I would feel better about myself.’ This was the moment, the catalyst, that made me think I actually need to get some help and do something about this, because I can’t go on feeling like this. That was when I consulted a professional trauma specialist councillor, and she’s been absolutely fantastic with me working through my emotions and thoughts and feelings, which has been absolutely vital for me.
That’s why Black Women Rising is so important to me, because I didn’t have the support network, and I don’t want any other person to go through that. It was so important for me to provide a sisterhood, a sense of togetherness. Because when you’re going through and after cancer; you need that, you need your cancer buddies.
There’s not a one size fits all, we’re all very different. Some people are very open with being able to talk about mental health, some people are not necessarily so open. There’s also this thing with cancer where people tiptoe around cancer patients because they don’t know what to say. What I found really helpful was finding that one person, who is your cancer buddy that you can talk to on a day-to-day basis. That one person who understands you and what you’re going through that you can speak so openly with. I still have that now and speak to her every single day about everything, because she gets me and I get her.
“It was so important for me to provide a sisterhood, a sense of togetherness.”
Helplines like Breast Cancer Now are also so important and invaluable for those that need to talk about mental health or are looking for where to start to be more open. Our organisations The Leanne Pero Foundation and Black Women Rising are offering online support groups, where you can meet and chat to like minded people.
Another thing that can help you feel better is staying off of the internet. For me personally I was so thankful I went through cancer without the whole blogging online life. It can be quite detrimental to your health, and if you’re scrolling and looking at people’s lives and thinking everybody is getting on with things okay, which tends to be an illusion, that can make you feel worse.
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Curate a safe space for yourself, with a list of things that when you’re feeling anxious you can revert back, to bring you peace. For example, talking to a cancer buddy, talking to a general friend, going for walks, having your favourite food, having your favourite drink. What helps you? What brings you peace and joy? Whatever it is, find your list of things. In these times where everyone is so isolated the feeling of loneliness can creep in and that can sometimes be crippling. You can be surrounded by people but still feel alone because life isn’t normal. So, it’s important to find those little things that can help.
I also don’t believe in feeding into this toxic positivity of “you’re strong, you’re brave, you’re inspirational”. When actually no, sometimes we need to have a moment and be allowed to have a moment to feel rubbish. Whether it’s a day or a week, let us be. Even now, I still have those moments, but I’ve found that I have to be kind to myself and allow myself to have them and that, in time, they’ll pass, and things will get better.”