This month I attended the “Let’s Talk About Black Women and Breast Cancer” event at the Royal Society of Medicine in London. It’s particularly relevant since October is breast cancer awareness month and also black history month in the UK. The event is held to raise awareness, to provide a space for anyone wanting to know more about the pertinent issues surrounding black women and breast cancer, and to offer new resources and updated information. I was really happy to see women of all races and all parts of the UK attend.
The speakers highlighted the effects of cultural stigmas within African/Caribbean culture that prevent breast cancer being discussed openly and, in some cases, kept secret. Often, personal issues are seen as something that should be hidden and not spoken about, which is not helpful when coping with various treatments and processes of cancer. Peer support can be gained from others who have shared experiences, and this was encouraged at the event. However, there is also a need to protect women from unreliable sources of information, for example social media videos promoting cures or religious healing that can have negative effects.
The stigma surrounding psychologists and therapists was discussed along with the tendency for some women to withhold true emotions when engaging with these health professionals. There is also a belief that psychology services are only for people with mental health conditions. However, this is not true as they can provide helpful and useful coping techniques and strategies for processing thoughts, feelings and emotions.
There was a discussion on communication and tips on how to self-advocate. The speaker recommended that patients be prepared by writing down their questions before their appointments, bringing someone with you for support, making sure you have all your letters as reference, and also letting people know that it’s okay to seek a second opinion on treatment options. Engagement in activities/groups and filling out feedback forms was also encouraged, as representation can be lower in these areas. Feedback can inform services how they can help further or offer better care for all women.
The disparities of information regarding hair preservation when on chemotherapy was raised as the likelihood of keeping hair is only 50% and head sores are likely to occur more than in other ethnicities. We were informed about the NHS free wig service, the NHS wig wrap and hair loss project and were advised that a specialist trichologist trained in afro hair should be involved. We learned that there is now a funded pilot programme with the brand Nubian Skin and NHS trust Royal Marsden to create four bespoke tones of soft prosthesis dedicated to brown women. This raised a conversation about the need for lymphoedema sleeves to also have the same range of tones available for everyone. Women raised the great issue of representation in medical photography and the need for images of patients with procedure scars that look like them. This highlighted the importance of health care professionals asking to take images, for brown women to be open to being photographed to help other women, and even asking to be photographed if you find that the representation is low.
The conference was really great as they provided a lovely lunch for everyone with drinks. There were two exhibition spaces open to the public and health professionals, with a number of brands and charities available to speak with including MacMillian, Breast Cancer Now, Amoena, La Roche Posay, and AstraZeneca. They had a bookable bra fitting service where women were measured for the right bra sizes. There was also a demonstration showing women how to routinely examine their breasts effectively and seminar talks on dealing with breast cancer, survivorship, living with secondary disease and stage 4 disease. Seminars were held for professionals on genetics, research, data and what’s new in breast cancer care. They also had panel talks with celebrities, social media influencers, politicians, health care professionals and charities and allowed the conference audience to ask questions and interact which provided a safe space atmosphere.
All in all I had a positive experience as a healthcare professional attending for the first time. I believe that all women will gain great insight into their own breast health from attending and it really pushes awareness of issues and concerns that surround women of African and Caribbean heritage.