Award-winning entrepreneur Leanne Pero has been working solidly for the past 20 years while also living with the aftermath of cancer and childhood abuse. Here, she shares how burnout signalled to her that it was time to stop, re-evaluate, and start prioritising her own mental health
Leanne Pero is an award-winning entrepreneur, founder of Black Women Rising, and a cancer survivor – and she’s burnt out. Truly burnt out. This, she says, is the side of survivorship and advocacy that’s very rarely written about, and she wants to share the impact it has on her mental health in the hope that it might resonate with others.
I’m glad Leanne wants to talk about this. Since chatting to her for our podcast, ‘I am. I have’, last November, I’ve watched on social media as she documented moments of celebration, followed by deep sorrow at the death of yet another friend taken by cancer and, at the end of 2020, her need to take time away from public-facing work. Even from an outsider’s perspective, it’s clear that her continual proximity to the cancer conversation has taken its toll.
“I just had to take a break,” Leanne says. “I find I get triggered by bad news, and when you’re a natural empath it’s hard not to get bogged down by worldly problems, but also the worries and lives of the people you care about, too.”
Anyone who has come into contact with Leanne will know how truly empathic she is, and why her ongoing work would leave its mark on her soul. She’s always used her own experiences to help others. As a survivor of childhood abuse, in her teenage years she found a way of expressing herself through dance that helped her enormously. After recognising that movement has the power to heal, Leanne began to teach, mentor, and support others with their struggles, too. She set up The Movement Factory 20 years ago, and the dance company is still going strong today.
However, it’s Black Women Rising, the project-turned-nationwide-initiative she established after treatment for breast cancer, that’s been at the centre of her world recently. Leanne was just 30 when she received her diagnosis, and felt completely alone. She couldn’t find resources for Black women living with cancer, let alone young Black women like her, and so she started a support movement. Last year, Black Women Rising developed into a magazine, podcast, and community initiative to support thousands of Black women throughout their cancer journey.
"I’ve realised now that I have to protect myself, because I can’t do the work that I do without taking some time away"
Leanne is rightly proud of all the support BWR has provided, but constant discussions and focus on illness, treatment, and death have had a serious impact on her own mental health.
The arrival of extreme burnout, and its manifestations, scared her.
“Up until that point, I felt like I was a machine, always on the go,” Leanne says. “Then one day, I just couldn’t get out of bed. I couldn’t move. I was having major headaches and having to sleep throughout the day. The physical effects of mental exhaustion are real and huge – that’s what people don’t understand.
“I’ve had to reinforce personal boundaries, and this has meant limiting regular contact within the cancer community right now,” she explains. “I have to protect myself, because I can’t continue to do the work that I do without taking some time away.”
And this time has enabled her to gain a perspective on the organisation, and prompted revelations about the next steps needed to move forward.
“I realised that I’ve set up this amazing organisation, it’s doing brilliant work, and now it’s time to put people in place to grow it further. Now it’s time for me to live my life for me.”
But taking a step back, after her whole adult life has revolved around serving others, isn’t as simple as it sounds.
“It’s not an easy process when you’ve been working like I have for 20 years – you have to give yourself permission. It’s a definitive act of self-care.”
So where do you start? For Leanne, it was by shaking up her daily routine.
“I’ve been working a few hours a day, and that’s enough for now. On Monday, I had a very unapologetic day of waking up and deciding not to work. It felt a bit naughty,” she laughs. “But I felt better and lighter for it.”
Now, everything Leanne does is about getting herself mentally healthy, including walks, seeing her therapist, and reading. But above all, space to think has been crucial in addressing her burnout, to process her experiences and acknowledge the shadow that cancer has left behind, even after her all-clear.
In January, Leanne had a scan which showed no signs of cancer and she was elated. After telling a friend she’d been holding off big life decisions for fear the cancer was back, she was thrown when he called her attitude “stupid”.
“The triggering nature of my work meant that I truly believed it was coming back,” she explains. “Having the clear scan was like being set free, so being shut down was hard. I felt invalidated, but in the cancer community this is a really common thought pattern – the extreme anxiety that comes with a scan.
"Now it’s time for me to live my life for me"
“That fear, it’s exhausting, and it made my burnout 10 times worse. I have my own internal struggles as well, and that’s why it’s important to take proper time out before I can even think about doing anything else for others.”
This self-enforced change of pace has enabled Leanne to think about her own needs, and she happily shares that she’s in the process of buying a house.
“Right now,” she says, “I want to concentrate on building a happy life. I think that’s the greatest gift I could give to myself.”
For more resources on managing work-life balance, and support with mental health after a cancer diagnosis, visit counselling-directory.org.uk