Sixty years ago Terese Lasser, a 48-year-old mother of two was admitted to hospital for a routine breast biopsy. When she awoke from the anaesthesia she discovered her body “tightly wrapped as a mummy in surgical gauze”, the result of a radical mastectomy pioneered by American surgeon William Halsted. Terese was devastated. She later wrote “I ached to talk to another woman who had had the same experience … but no such woman was available”. However, Terese Lasser was a fighter and within a year she had established Reach for Recovery.
The organisation grew steadily, reaching into many countries and offering a programme of different services: support, education and advocacy, all aimed at improving the lives of patients. For the past three days almost 400 delegates — over 80% of them survivors of breast cancer — have been meeting in Cape Town for the 17th Reach to Recovery International Breast Cancer Support Conference. Their theme has been “Together We Reach” and a strong focus has been on Africa, symbolised by the conference logo that features two arms embracing a pink Protea (see above).
Among the keynote speakers was Musa Mayer from the USA, a 23-year survivor of breast cancer who for the past two decades has been a tireless advocate for women living with breast cancer. Among the books she’s authored are After Breast Cancer: Answers to the Questions You’re Afraid to Ask and Holding Tight, Letting Go: Living with Metastatic Breast Cancer. She spoke about this latter topic, emphasising that while life with “mets” remained a challenge for patients, even in well-resourced countries, the last thing these women wanted was to be “hidden and forgotten”.
Another of the outstanding plenary lectures was delivered by Dr Carol Benn, one of South Africa’s foremost breast surgeons who spoke about the power of advocacy. Her theme was based on “The Big Five”: education (I am Lion, hear me roar); diagnosis and screening (I am Leopard, know me by my spots); treatment (I am Buffalo, with a mean and hungry look); support (I am Elephant, I never forget); and service (I am Rhino, please save me).
The Mother City has been privileged to host this uplifting event where women have come together to share their personal stories. Fittingly, at the closing ceremony Adri van Nieuwenhuizen, a lyricist who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005, sang Because of You, a song inspired by Reach for Recovery.