What it’s Like for a Black Woman to have Breast Cancer

A woman’s breasts are an integral part of her femininity and her identity. The breasts are symbolic of female fertility; they nourish, nurture and comfort a woman’s children and they contribute to her sexuality and femininity. In fact, a woman’s breasts are so interwoven with the fabric of her very existence that she simply cannot imagine her life without them.” – Dr CA Benn Breast specialist surgeon

In Africa it is the woman who is regarded as the breadwinner and poverty alleviator as well as being the homemaker, mother, child-rearer and peacekeeper. The discovery of a suspicious lump in the breast is therefore the most traumatic experience for any woman. But an African woman not only feels terrified, she also experiences feelings of guilt and shame. To say you are suffering from this disease is taboo among African women.

An African woman feels guilty because she knows that her husband is going to accuse her of being unfaithful. She’s filled with shame as her femininity has been invaded and she can’t explain it. One of the African myths is that breast cancer is a white person’s only disease! This leads to African women hiding the disease from society and not seeking medical help.

The story below is true – one that I have heard repeated over and over again by many breast cancer survivors:

“Upon hearing that I had been diagnosed with breast cancer my husband packed his bags and left me! Firstly he accused me of being unfaithful; secondly he said that he had paid lobola for a complete and whole woman. What would he now do with a woman without breasts, her symbol of sexuality and femininity?

To bypass the stigma, I secretly visited a traditional healer who told me that a tikoloshe, sent by someone jealous, was sucking my breasts at night when I was asleep. The traditional healer informed me that the only sure way to heal this was by conducting a cleansing ceremony to chase away the bad spirits and curses.

After a year I could no longer stand the stench coming from my breast. I was husband-less and penniless, as I’d spent my last money on the cleansing ceremony. The smell had driven family members, friends and neighbours away from me. I was an outcast, like someone with leprosy.  I was even ashamed to go to the hospital.

A Good Samaritan, a nurse who heard about my problem, came to see me and encouraged me to go to the local clinic. I was promptly referred to the hospital and treatment was started immediately. The support from the nurses and other breast cancer patients was unbelievable.”

It is important to note that cancer is not a curse; neither can it be caused by someone cursing you.

For me my breast cancer has been a blessing. It has helped to empower me and now I am out there educating the community. I help people everyday to escape from the trap created by the total lack of information about breast cancer.

Through all of my own turmoil, and my fight against cancer, I have learned one important factor: cancer can be treated – provided that, when you notice something unusual, you consult a doctor immediately.

Love yourself and care for who you are. You are the Mother. No one will fight this illness for you, so empower yourself with knowledge by finding out as much as you can about your illness. I have been given a second chance, and I want to use it to help other women.

Written by Rebecca Musi