I thought black women didn’t get breast cancer

PUBLISHED ON: 2 October 2017

When Della was diagnosed with breast cancer, she was shocked. Now she works in Nigeria, setting up support groups to raise awareness and understanding of breast cancer.

Breast cancer isn't understood in my community

In my community, there are huge myths and taboos about black people getting breast cancer. Mainly, that only white people get it. So when I went to the GP with pain in my breast, I was certain it wasn’t cancer.

I was in shock

I was with a friend, complaining about agonising breast pain in my left breast. I was self-medicating with pain killers, but she recommended I go to the GP. I was referred to the hospital for further tests, but I’d ruled out breast cancer.

‘Breast cancer is for white people, and it wouldn’t feel like that,’ I thought.

The doctor did a biopsy, then an ultrasound, and at this point her face dropped. But I still didn’t think it was anything bad. I was about to go on holiday, I’d just got a new job, all I could think about was the plane journey!

The tests came back, and the lump was malignant. I was in shock.

I didn’t know the signs and symptoms

I didn't think black women could get breast cancer

I was the only black person in my bible study group, and everyone seemed to know more about the signs and symptoms than I did. My vicar’s wife came with me to my appointments, and took notes while I sat there in shock.

My mum came over from Nigeria on holiday, but I didn’t know how to tell her. We went to my vicar’s house and had a cup of tea, they helped me tell her.

Where was the support for black women?

After my treatment, chemotherapy and a mastectomy, I went through depression. As an African woman I’d been brought up to be strong and brave. ‘We are not weak,’ I told myself.

I was offered a support group, but wanted to go to one with other black women who would have been through the same shock that I had. Normally I’d never go to a support group, my family is my support. But I didn’t know how to speak about breast cancer in the black community. It was a taboo subject.

Why hadn’t I known that black women could get breast cancer?

I started looking at brochures and websites for cancer charities, and found no black women there. To me, all the images made it seem like a disease that affected white women.

I challenged this, and Macmillan gave me a grant to set up my own support group. That‘s how my journey started.

People think you can 'catch' cancer

For some black people in the UK, myths about breast cancer come from traditions and ideas that haven’t been questioned. Many think cancer is contagious, that if your mum has it you shouldn’t eat with her, as you could catch it. I wanted to dispel these myths. I needed to get people to talk!

I had to admit my vulnerability

Della found support through sharing her story

Della one year after treatment

Talking to others and hearing their stories prompted me to share mine.

In Nigeria, once treatment is over that’s it - there is no follow-up. But this is the most crucial time for support. I set up my first support group there in 2013, working with one of the only breast cancer charities there, COPE.

That was the first time I cried. Standing there among 20 other black people with breast cancer.

I was surprised at how open people were! This was the first time they’d had the chance to speak about their diagnosis, as Nigerians shy away from the word ‘cancer’. There was a queue of people to talk to me afterwards, and one by one they referred their friends to me.

Why I’m going to Nigeria this Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Della runs support groups in Nigeria

Della in Nigeria

We now run groups in Lagos and the capital, Abuja. I’m flying out in October for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, raising awareness and keeping the conversation going. The national Breast Cancer Day is 5 October, and COPE are running a pamper day for women with breast cancer.

I hope more and more black communities will talk about breast cancer, and that charities and hospitals will keep working to bridge the gap that I found seven years ago. My daughters seem to know more than I did, so that’s one thing!

Join Della and help spread awareness of breast cancer. Wear your limited edition 25th anniversary pink ribbon this October.

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