Community entrepreneur and advocate, mentor, author and founder of Black Women Rising joins Happiful's podcast to talk about the power of dance, her experience of breast cancer and why she felt called to make a change within the cancer community
Leanne Pero, founder of Black Women Rising, the amazing initiative to support Black women living with cancer, shares her thoughts on her career to date, mental health struggles during and after breast cancer diagnosis and the project that makes her proud.
Life as an entrepreneur
Leanne started her entrepreneurial career at just 15, when she began to dance and teach dance. Now, 20 years later, her very first venture The Movement Factory is still going strong, as is her belief that dance can make a huge difference to people’s lives.
Leanne is emphatic about this, because dancing was the place she found respite after she was sexually abused from the ages of 10 to 13 by a close family friend.
“I became quite an adult overnight, at a time when I shouldn’t have been. It was a difficult time to process such a huge thing that was happening to me. I was reeling, and was - what I know now to be really depressed.
Dance saved me. The community connection of going to dance every single week, having that when everything else in my life was falling apart...
“Dancing was something I picked up at the age of 11,” Leanne explains. “Dance saved me. The community connection of going to dance every single week, having that when everything else in my life was falling apart, having the team building skills and being able to enjoy the art of performing, really helped.”
The impact of dance was so profound for Leanne that she decided to become a teacher, buoyed by the knowledge that dance and expression can change your mood and outlook. Leanne started by running classes at her local community centre as a teenager, and over the following years her teaching career expanded, resulting in the establishment of The Movement Factory.
In her late 20s, and after the end of a long-term relationship, Leanne realised that she was struggling severely with her mental health and that she needed professional help - something she had never been offered as a younger woman dealing with sexual abuse. She was subsequently diagnosed with PTSD and began to work with a counsellor.
Keen to help others by sharing her personal experiences, as she had done with dance, Leanne penned and published a book Take Control of Your Life: Before It Takes Control of You.
At the age of 30, just months after publishing her book, Leanne was diagnosed with breast cancer. “My mum got diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time in March 2016 and I was diagnosed in October.”
“I was stage three,” she shares. “I had to have a double mastectomy and eight rounds of chemotherapy. It completely shattered my world. I have never felt as bad as I did for three months, not because of the chemo but in terms of how I felt in myself.”
While Leanne was given the all clear after extensive treatment, she shares that having cancer has changed her life forever. “The recovery from cancer has been absolutely immense. Not just physically, although breast cancer will rob you of the majority of things that society in this day and age will tell you makes you a woman, particularly a young woman who isn't married yet and hasn’t found her partner or had children.”
“It’s the mental impact,” she explains. “You’re given the all-clear and you think everything will be OK, but it wasn’t. I couldn’t normalise my life, my thoughts and feelings weren’t the same and I did not know how I could recover.”
Leanne shares that mental health support was vital for her, but the shame and stigma that exists in the Black community around cancer, treatment and speaking out was tough to manage and something she has vowed to change ever since.
There’s so much shame and misinformation, which is why the mortality rates for particularly Black and Asian women with cancer is very high
“There’s so much shame and misinformation, which is why the mortality rates for particularly Black and Asian women with cancer is very high, because people don’t go and get checked out. These conversations are not being normalised in the home.”
This was a call to action for Leanne. “I couldn’t walk away from this experience and not do anything for my community as a result. I knew I had to do something about it and to create a space that I was comfortable in too. I didn’t see any girls my age, or the same colour skin as me going through cancer. I felt like the only Black girl with cancer.”
Black Women Rising
“When I realised my hospital couldn’t offer me the support I needed, I decided to take matters into my own hands,” Leanne continues. “I decided to publish the journals I’d written through my journey online, and come out to the community, because I’d gone into hiding throughout the treatment because I just couldn’t deal with anything else.”
A big national charity shared one of her blogs, and Leanne was flooded with messages from women sharing their experiences. Leanne organised a regular meet up, for Black women to share their experiences, talk together, cry together and laugh together. “That’s where Black Women Rising began, the peer to peer groups and that’s still at the heart of everything we do.”
The support group evolved, centering on the experiences of the women and Leanne’s goal to empower them and offer them a safe and positive space to express themselves. The Scars exhibition followed (to be shown at the Tate Gallery in 2021) and a phenomenal podcast Black Women Rising:The Untold Stories, to continue first-hand experience sharing throughout lockdown.
Lockdown also brought more women seeking support to Black Women Rising, which is where the concept of the national annual magazine about living with cancer as a Black woman came about. “We ended up with a 200 page magazine, launched on the Lorraine show, and it’s changed lives. We get so many messages telling us that it's’ really helping.
“I’ve basically created something that I wish I’d had when I was going through cancer,’ Leanne says. “That brings me so much joy and makes me proud.”
Listen to the whole story on Leanne’s episode of I am. I have
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