I am not my breast. I am Stephanie Benson, born Ann Shirley Akua Adjepong, and I am and will be that same person for as long as I live and no one will ever bring me down or make me feel less of a person, irrespective of my body changes. I am whole in my heart and in my mind.
Breast cancer is still by far the most common cancer among women worldwide – in developing and developed countries alike – and the month of October is set aside worldwide to mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
This month creates much-needed attention and support for early detection and treatment as well as palliative care for the disease.
Although there is not enough knowledge of what causes breast cancer, early detection remains at the centre of breast cancer control. A woman’s risk of breast cancer doubles every decade until the menopause, after which the rate of increase slows.
Breast cancer is more common after the menopause, however, and so women beyond childbearing years are advised to go for screening more frequently.
28 hours under the knife
The UK-based Ghanaian singer and performer Stephanie Benson lost her mother, three aunts and two uncles to some form of cancer, all before their 49th birthday. She found out she, too, was in the early stages of ovarian cancer on 23 January 2015, before her 48th birthday.
She decided to have a mammogram a few days after the ovarian diagnosis to rule out the chance of breast cancer, because her family had a dominant history of the disease.
When she was called to go for a second scan, she knew she had to muster strength, as “the inevitable was about to happen”. Doctors confirmed on 2 February 2015 that she had breast cancer.
Stephanie underwent a total of 28 hours of surgery in three days, during which she had one breast and her uterus removed, and then suffered numerous complications as her cuts refused to heal. She survived, and chose to have her other breast removed to minimise the risk of the disease recurring.
She has since made it her vocation to create awareness of the disease and speak frankly about ways to survive it.
Singing for life
The mother-of-five has had modest reconstructive surgery and is full of life.
She trained to do a mountain walk up Mont Ventoux in the south of France with the Singing for Your Life team in September 2016. Singing for Your Life is a Dutch organisation that gathers mass choirs to support cancer patients/survivors and their families by arranging public events.
Stephanie did her mountain walk to raise funds for cancer research and to buy a mobile mammogram unit for Ghana, as well as support the Dutch Cancer Society.
The most recent statistics from the World Health Organization, compiled in 2018, show that breast cancer was responsible for more than 20% of all 22,823 new cases of cancer detected in Ghana that year – by far the biggest category, outstripping cancers of the cervix and the liver. Among women, breast cancer was the cause of over one-third of all cancers.
Treatments are relatively advanced, however, and survival rates relatively good. Breast cancer is only the third biggest cause of deaths from cancer in Ghana, accounting for 12.4% of the cumulative cases over a five-year period.
Juliette Mills-Lutterodt, a hairstylist by profession, is the founder and president of Pink for Africa, a foundation promoting support from sufferers and survivors of breast cancer. She is another woman who has survived the disease.
Her birth family is rooted in the arts: one of her brothers is the actor Majid Michel and the late poet Kofi Awoonor was her uncle.
While “home sick recovering from breast cancer”, Juliette, the mother of three sons, founded Jul’s Collection, a line of luxury Italian leather accessories.
Twenty per cent of all proceeds from sales of Jul’s Collection goods goes towards Pink for Africa. The foundation creates public awareness and educates women on risk factors, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment and support systems.
It works in practical ways, offering support, counselling, hands-on health advice and prostheses to survivors and women living with cancer as well as to families of sufferers. It also exposes the social stigma attached to the disease, campaigns against it and teaches women how to develop a positive attitude to illness.
Pink for Africa is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year.
The symbolism of pink
The colour pink, especially pink used in ribbons, is used globally to create awareness and by campaigns to find a cure or treatments for the disease.
The first breast cancer ribbon, introduced by the activist Charlotte Haley, was a light peach in colour and not pink.
The pastel pink now used for most breast cancer awareness ribbons is thought to be health-giving. Margaret Welch, the director of the Colour Association of the United States, says that studies have found that pink is thought to be stress-relieving, playful, life-affirming, quieting and calming.
Nana Abena Boakye-Boateng
* Juliette Mills-Lutterodt and Stephanie Benson will be the guests on “Sunday Night” for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, to be broadcast tonight (Sunday 25 October), starting at 7pm. The programme will be rebroadcast on Tuesday 27 October.