One-on-One with Laurelle Williams

From teacher to breast cancer survivor, from Reach for Recovery (RFR) volunteer to Reach for Recovery International (RRI) President, and now recently elected to sit on the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) Board of Directors; Beatrice Ann Steyn, better known as Ann, has gone from strength to strength. It is believed that the 77-year-old Capetonian is the first South African to be on the UICC Board. We chat to her about her great achievements.


When were you elected to be on the UICC Board of Directors? In November 2016, at the UICC World Cancer Congress in Paris.

What was the process to be nominated/elected? I was nominated in March 2016 by organisations that are members of the UICC. They were required to fill in application forms. The Board then drew up a short-list of prospective candidates. An electronic election was then held at the AGM of the UICC. The Board consists of 17 people, and I am one of the five new Board members elected.

What was your reaction? I was stunned initially as I hadn’t canvassed at all. But it is a great privilege to be able to represent the hundreds of thousands of cancer patients/survivors globally, whose voices are not heard on many international cancer boards. I hope to be able to voice the needs of people living with cancer in Africa and, more particularly, in Sub-Saharan Africa. I would like to ensure improvement in service delivery in developing countries and help build capacity of cancer leadership.

What is the mission of UICC? We unite the cancer community to reduce the global cancer burden, to promote greater equity and to integrate cancer control into the world health and development agenda.

Tell us about your breast cancer diagnoses. I was first diagnosed with hormone negative breast cancer in 1990, and had a mastectomy, then had a recurrence in 2005. This time I was put on Taxotere, and Herceptin for a year as well as radiotherapy. The initial shock of the first diagnosis left me in a confused emotional state – one minute in denial and then the next wondering how long I had to live. Decisions had to be made and I felt I had no control over what was happening to me. Once the mastectomy took place and I met other women in the same situation, I began to see there was a challenging journey ahead of me. After 14 years of remission, I really felt that I had beaten the disease so it was a frightening shock to discover it had come back. The second time around you perhaps know too much! But on the other hand, you’ve lived well for so long and all the treatments have improved so you must still have years ahead. Strangely, I believe that having breast cancer has made me a better person!

You started out as a volunteer at RFR then went on to be the President of RRI – explain this amazing transition. I became National Coordinator for RFR in South Africa and worked on a new training programme for volunteers. This led me to raise funds from overseas in order to train volunteers in other African countries. As a result, I was asked to join the RRI Board of Management in 2001. After a few years, I became President (2007-2013). I still sit on the Board.

You were also part of the Breast Health Global Initiative (BHGI) – explain what this is? The BHGI was established in 2002 to improve the breast cancer outcomes in low- and middle-resourced countries and other medically underserved regions throughout the world. Over a decade, the BHGI model produced comprehensive resource-stratified evidence-based consensus guidelines to effectively detect, diagnose and treat breast cancer in low- and middle-income countries (LMCs), and prioritise resource allocation in breast care programmes. The guidelines are ‘tools’ for the LMCs with systems-based solutions to assist Minsters of Health, policy makers, healthcare institutions and others.

What would you like to see change in SA regarding cancer? I would like to see cancer become a national priority with an updated Cancer Register and National Cancer Control Plan. I would also like to see the stigma that surrounds cancer eradicated by education programmes.

What would you like to see change in the world regarding cancer? A reduction in cancer deaths, particularly in developing countries where there is a growing cancer burden.

Out of the 14 African countries’ support groups you set up for RRI, which one stand outs for you and why? There are so many wonderful groups working in difficult conditions so it is not easy to select one above the other, however, the Kenyan groups are doing fantastic work and influencing health policies, and the Zimbabwean groups, with very little funds, manage to support women and their families, and even obtain tamoxifen when needed. All the women are fantastic examples of caring supportive volunteers.

How has the NGO environment changed in SA over the past 15 years? Many more organsations have formed to support the differing types of cancer. A greater awareness of the need for advocacy.

What is lacking for breast cancer patients? In SA, it is a breast health policy and the unequal treatment offered to breast cancer patients; it differs from region to region. The fact that where you stay can determine whether you live after a breast cancer diagnosis is disturbing.

MEET OUR EDITOR - Laurelle Williams

Laurelle Williams is the editor at Word for Word Media. She graduated from AFDA with a Bachelor of Arts Honours degree in Live Performance. She has a love for storytelling and sharing emotions through the power of words. Her aim is to educate, encourage and most of all show there is always hope. Write to the editor@buddiesforlife.co.za

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