When Leanne Pero was diagnosed with breast cancer at just 30 years old, she became aware of the lack of cancer support for BAME women and the lower diagnosis rates often associated with myths and taboos within their communities. Through The Leanne Pero Foundation, she created the Black Women Rising project in 2017 to offer vital help, support and visibility to cancer patients. The heart of the project lies in its monthly peer to peer support groups to educate, inspire and connect BAME women with one another to share their stories without fear or shame. Every donation received allows for the continuation of these necessary services and the creation of new, sustained content to empower sufferers and survivors throughout their cancer journey.
The theme for this year’s IWD is #ChooseToChallenge. What are the most significant challenges you have felt as a woman?
There have been three significant big challenges for me to personally overcome. First and foremost, I was a child sexual abuse victim at a really young age, at 13. When I came out and told people what happened, I went through a really difficult transitional period and had no choice but to become an adult. It took extensive counselling and therapy to come out of that, something I later found myself in due to depression following the breakup with my childhood sweetheart. I learned so much in that time, but 3 years later I found myself being diagnosed with cancer at 30 years old.
How have you chosen to challenge them?
For me, with my cancer journey, I felt really isolated. One of the things that I realised when I got diagnosed was that there weren’t any examples of young black women going through cancer- or any young people at all. There was no one I could really relate to - no girls on the literature, online information or at the hospital support group looked like me. So as I was nearing the end of my cancer journey, which was difficult to say the least, it was the one thing I wanted to talk about. I began to blog online about my cancer experience as a black woman, and I was quite astounded by the amount of women that got in touch.
It made me look into some of the stigmas that are surrounding people from the BAME community, and why we're isolated and going through these cancer experiences alone. On one hand, you've got this kind of lack of awareness within the black community around cancer and no visibility within media campaigns. But then on the other side, you've got really unhelpful myths and taboos deep rooted within black and the Asian culture that are really unhelpful. When it comes to chronic illness like cancer, we’re told that if we pray enough, you will be cured and that perhaps we’re to blame. My friend’s Auntie told her to put orange peel underneath her pillow for 90 days to get rid of cancer. People are not going to go and get checked, and it’s leading to some of the statistics that we have now: black women, for example, are more susceptible to die from cancer than our white counterparts. It's a fact. So, for me, it was about creating a project to challenge those stigmas, empower people for a cancer diagnosis, but also give them the resources that they need to do that because no one understands what's going on in our culture apart from us.
"I think everyone has their purpose in life, and for me helping and serving the community is where I measure my success."
How has lockdown challenged you or your charity?
Honest truth, when we came into lockdown in March 2020, I had got to the point where it had become so challenging for me mentally that I was going to close the charity down. Then, when I moved the monthly support group I run online, we had more people than ever before. I’ll never forget it! I put up 25 slots and they went instantly and people were like, we need, need, need more support. People's mental health took a massive battering, and cancer sufferers were worrying about going into hospital; about Covid. Cancer treatment and surgery started to be cancelled, and we lost 3 women who were very important members of our congregation. We have had people have cancer recurrences due to treatments and drugs being stopped. I've got one young girl with throat cancer who was due to have an operation in August and still hasn't had it now. This shows the strain. We’re now running more support groups on a monthly basis and have upped our resources including a podcast and a magazine. The Black Lives Matter movement that found revived purpose during lockdown helped with funding and support as people started to pay attention and were more open to listening to our stories. Now it's coming to the second year and we were asking people for support, we are seeing it dwindle, and even negative racial trolling. We’re having to rely a lot more on government support and grants, which are at capacity right now so even small donations are crucial to us. For every couple of hundred pounds that we get, we can run support groups for 6 months or more or invest in consistent projects such as the podcast.
Why is having a day dedicated to celebrating female achievements so important?
I think of International Women's Day in the same way as Black History Month in the sense that it's important to look and reflect about how far we've come. I started my other business, a dance company, 20 years ago and was being spoken down to in a sexist way by men in high positions whilst seeking funding. When I'm trying to fundraise now, it's crazy how things have changed; how it’s no longer just men sitting around in suits. It's women now that I'm talking to - women-run organisations with funding pots that women have created and women have used their initiative to create. Seeing that, it reminds me a bit of my work in terms of what I do around racial inequality too, and so celebrating women for just one day and the achievements of women and all the things that we have to go through, I fully support. I have no time for anybody that says otherwise!
What is your biggest achievement?
I think overcoming trauma is my biggest celebration. I think I've been through so MANY different traumatic events and to still be able to stand smiling, helping others is something I don't take for granted. I give thanks every day, that I have gone through that and am able to use those experiences to help others. I think everyone has their purpose in life, and for me helping and serving the community is where I measure my success.
What are the achievements you celebrate on a daily basis?
That question is something you ask yourself a lot when you've recovered from cancer. One of my small wins was convincing myself that my cancer wasn't going to come back and I wasn't going to die. Getting through a day successfully knowing that I'm going to survive cancer. These days, it's going for a walk and making sure I get my 5,000 steps in. Or making sure I finish my day at 5pm to stop myself from working all day and night to chill out. That is a small win for me in lockdown to makes sure my mental health stays where it needs to be.
Who are the women who challenge and inspire you?
Definitely my grandma - she was just an amazingly strong woman. She was white and adopted a very mixed race family in the 1960s at a time when racism was absolutely rife. She came across so much opposition, but she was just so strong right until the end when she passed away, she just really looked after all of us. I look to her for guidance now, like a little angel looking down on me. I would also say my mentor, Debbie Moore, who is the owner of Pineapple Dance Studios, she took me under her wing when I was in my 20s. She showed me how to run a successful dance business and we became great friends. She’s almost like a fairy godmother to me.
What advice would you give to a younger version of yourself?
The advice I'd give to a younger version of myself would be not to worry so much about life and actually just learn to relax a little bit - everything always works out for the best. I've spent many years always worrying what's coming next and have actually learned to be a little bit more present.
What are the emerging challenges for women that have caught your attention?
Social media can be very dangerous, particularly with misinformation. A lot of the women I work with are very curious about the Internet, and turn to it to try and blog about their experiences because they see other people doing it. But sometimes they're unknowingly exposing themselves into a world that, if you don't have much experience in, can leave you feeling quite worthless. There's always a dark side, and support is not guaranteed. In fact, I recently questioned some of the youngest people in my support group and asked them, when it comes to mental health, to put their hand up if they struggle mentally with social media and the expectation to be something that they’re not. There was not one hand that didn't go up.
How best can people challenge bias in their everyday lives?
Be open, honest and listen. Particularly with setting up a Black organisation, it has helped when people admit that they don't understand the experiences we’re going through, but they’re here to listen and to be educated. Just having an open mind and listening is key.