BREAST CANCER SURVIVOR REBUILDS HER LIFE ONE CURL AT A TIME

Welcome to our #weareallmodels series. The Wright Walk was founded on the principles that no matter your position in life, we are all models, each with the power to inspire others. Once a month we will be featuring role models from around the globe who are overcoming the odds and recreating their realities.

How we treat, style and protect our kinks, curls and coils is extremely important. Our hair is a huge part of our identity, connecting us to our cultural roots and for our own self expression. But when the prospect of losing your hair is quite likely after being diagnosed with cancer, just how exactly does that affect a woman’s relationship with herself?

It's likely that if you know a guy that has a suit from Topshop, ASOS (or another high street store for that matter) in the last 10 years, it was tailored by menswear designer, Nina Lopes. But when Nina was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer at the tender age of 36, her life change forever. 

As the newly appointed Wright Walk Curl Correspondent, she discusses her personal battle, and how she was given a second chance at a natural hair journey. “I remember leaving the hospital in tears, really devastated thinking what has just happened. I was 36, I was so young, I eat healthy, I go to the gym, I don’t smoke, don’t drink excessively, I don’t understand. I was so confused” Nina recalls.

It is a common misconception that breast cancer is only found in mature women. A lot of us are under the impression that it is something we don’t need to think about until we reach a certain age. Whilst it is definitely more common in women over the age of 50, younger women (and men) are not exempt. According to the NHS, 1 in 8 women are diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime.

After completing Dry January with a friend, Nina recalls feeling unwell after her detox. She experienced irregular periods and did not feel like herself. One night after putting her daughter to bed something told her to check her breasts. She found a small lump and booked an appointment with her GP after feeling concerned. She explains her first visit to her doctors: “They sent me for a few scans just to check but they came back and said that everything was OK and that women tend to have lumpy breasts during their time of the month. I went home and still didn’t feel right but I just put it down to the fact that I was flying all the time for work, had a young daughter and thought I was maybe being a bit paranoid.”

A few weeks passed and she was struggling to sleep and experiencing sharp pains. She checked her breasts again and felt the lump in the same place, but this time it was really hard and much bigger:  “I automatically knew something wasn’t right. In my head I already knew it was cancer. I went to the doctors, and my GP couldn’t even look me in the eye, she said I needed to go to the hospital by emergency. At that moment I lost it and couldn’t stop crying.”

Nina describes that moment as a feeling of dread. Knowing that life changing news was right round the corner but not knowing the implications of what her diagnosis might entail. A feeling no one can truly understand unless they have experienced it themselves. My stomach drops as she begins to explain the events that followed that day: “I remember when I eventually made it to the hospital, the nurse was sending me somewhere, but I couldn’t really remember what she was telling me. She had to take me all the way to the room that I had to go to. I kept going from one room into another room and the lady who was doing the ultrasound just looked really serious. Every time I asked a question she tried to not say much because they’re not actually allowed to diagnose you, you have to come back. That’s the hard part, because you know you’ve got it, but you still have to wait 7 days for the results.”

She goes into detail about one of the hardest parts of her journey, telling her loved ones about her cancer diagnosis. Instagram allowed Nina to share her story, which eased the pain of having to tell her loved ones individually (which she describes as feeling like she was being re-diagnosed every time). “I had to try and tell one brother and then another one and I think that’s where social media really helped me. Once I started to share my story on my Instagram page, everyone knew and I only had to say it once. I didn’t have to keep going though it each time and that really helped me.”

Triple negative breast cancer is one of the most aggressive forms of breast cancer. Nina had to undergo 6 months of chemotherapy and she also had a lumpectomy. Like with most cancer’s, if you catch it early you have a better chance of treatment working. She explained that it’s easier for women with smaller breasts to catch it early.

Her experience of going through breast cancer as a black woman was challenging. When the hospital offered her a wig to wear as she was losing her hair, she was met with multiple straight haired, blonde wigs that looked nothing like her. She resorted to having to find a wig in the US.

Nina talks about her struggle to find her sense of self during her battle when it came to her hair: “It was really difficult because it was almost like cancer was exclusive to white women. So, if you’re not a person who has blonde or straight hair you really struggle. When they offered me the wigs, they just didn’t look like me. I asked the nurse if there was somewhere else I could get wigs from, because none of them looked like me so I struggled with that. I had to look for a wig myself, outside of the NHS, I had to go and Google somewhere. I found a wig in America and then I coloured it myself.”

Nina lost her curly hair and her eyebrows. She tried to hold onto as much of her natural hair as possible in the hopes that her daughter wouldn’t have to see her get ill. However, it was a few months into her treatment when she described her head feeling like ‘shit, it’s on fire’. Her hair follicles were dying and she was losing her hair: “What people don’t realise is that as you’re losing your hair it’s the first time you really come to terms with the fact that ‘omg I’m going to die, I’m really sick’.”

Despite losing her hair, she remembers just trying to having fun with it all. She ended up naming her wigs. One was named after the ‘Killing Eve’ character, Veronica, and she also named one after Tina Turner. She proclaimed that it was the little things that kept her going and liked the fact that she had these quirky alter-egos. We laugh and she tells me the time about when she accidentally dyed one of her wigs ginger after attempting to get a light brown colour.

Wigs helped Nina come to terms with her changing body but after a while she began to feel the loss of her authentic self: “I got to the point where I would wear a wig but I feel like I wasn’t being honest. I felt like I was being deceitful, like I wasn’t showing people the real me, everything was a façade. That was the moment I decided not to wear a wig anymore.”

Discussing cancer in the Black community is still very much a taboo subject. According to National Cancer Intelligence Network (NCIN), Black people are more prone to stomach and cervical cancer compared to white counterparts and it is a topic that is just not talked about enough. Nina explains why she thinks this is and why there is a lack of education and awareness on the subject: “Sometimes I think it’s because we are encouraged to show strength all the time. Maybe some people think that it’s a sign of weakness. I know that when I was sick and I was telling everybody, my mum was like ‘why are you telling people?’. I could never understand why she kept saying that to me, I wanted people to know, it was nothing to be ashamed of.”

Whilst experiencing cancer, along the way Nina met multiple black women whose loved ones were completely unaware of what they were going through: “I saw a lot of people who’s families didn’t even know, they went through the whole treatment without anyone knowing and I can’t imagine how hard that was. People don’t talk about it. With cancer there is definitely specific types that we’re [black people] more prone to but we don’t know about it because it’s not talked about.”

There’s a lot of truth to what Nina said, we as a community need to be more open to discussion and education around cancer and our health in general. There is power in knowledge and sometimes being strong can be to our detriment. When it comes to education and awareness, both Nina and I can agree on the idea that teaching people from a young age can help to catch cases earlier and ensure higher chances of survival. “The same thing they’re teaching kids in school about sex education, you should really be teaching them to be comfortable enough to check their bodies. To be familiar with them. I never really got taught. So much so that I have taught my own daughter so she knows how to check.”

Ilani, Nina’s daughter, now 10 years old, often reminds her mother to check her breasts. Nina informs me that they check their breasts every month using the method illustrated below. She strongly feels that education from a young age is extremely important. She reassures me that it’s not something she wants her daughter to be scared or worried about, but she wants to empower her daughter with the knowledge to know and understand her body, and to know when something could be wrong. 

Black Women Rising were a huge support for Nina towards the end of her treatment. Founded in 2017, by Leanne Pero, Black Women Rising are an organisation that offers cancer support for black women. Joining this group was an opportunity for Nina to be surrounded by women who looked like her who were experiencing the same thing. “For me when I came in contact with Black Women Rising via Instagram after I saw a post about their cancer support group, I was really open to it. I was a little bit like well, I don’t want to just go and talk about how bad my treatment was and complain. Then I remember going into it, and even if I didn’t have anything to say, even if I was just listening, I found that we were all experiencing the same thing.”

She emphasises how grateful she is for the organisation Black Women Rising, for making some great friends, sharing experiences and taking valuable information away from the group. We converse about representation and how important it is to see yourself in spaces. Black Women Rising was that safe space for Nina to be her authentic self, as a black woman experiencing breast cancer, a type of sisterhood. “I was talking to women who were stage four, who had finished their treatment and it had been years already, people who were still going through treatment, we all understood each other. They’re there if you need something, someone will know and will help you. It’s nice to see other women in the same place as you trying to figure things out and rediscover themselves, you get to see women who have hair similar to you, who look like you too.” 

So what’s life like now for Nina, a year after treatment? We talk about how her confidence is growing, her hair is thicker than ever and growing by the day, she’s smiling more and much happier in her skin. “I think for the first time I’m really happy in my skin, you know it took a really long time because when you’re loosing your hair, eyebrows and eyelashes, you really have to learn to love yourself. Not the hair, not what you’re wearing. But loving the skin that you’re in and the person that you are. I’m good right now. It took cancer to do that but we’re here.”

Nina is now taking the time to really live in the present, appreciate herself and how far she has come and what she has gone through. Her Instagram account ‘@frodayss’ is a visual story of Nina’s natural hair journey. She hopes to inspire others and documents her life now which she describes as ‘rebuilding my life one curl at a time’. “I feel like my hair is helping me to appreciate what I have and not try to change it. I’m grateful to have been giving a second chance at life and so I appreciate it, it’s a constant reminder. As my hair is growing now, I’ve reacquainted myself. I am discovering the new me all over again. I think that’s why I went with the phrase ‘rebuilding one curl at a time’. As my hair keeps growing and my confidence is coming back! For me I feel like i’m having a second chance at this natural hair journey. It’s taken me awhile to look in the mirror, now when I look I’m like ‘omg I’ve survived cancer now’ so I’m just excited to see how big it can get.”

Along with appreciating her natural hair, Nina has made sure she instils a radical love for her curls in her daughter too. Something all little black girls need to hear: “I have made a really big point to make sure that my daughter really loves her hair. She’s come home once and said ‘mummy everyone has blonde hair, can I have the same please?’ and I’d be like you’re special, ’nobody has hair like you’. I feel like now when she looks at me, she can actually see herself!”

Nina is an extremely resilient, confident and happy soul, her story is extremely inspiring. Her curls are beautiful, and with every strand that grows comes a new lease of life! Here at Wright Walk we are pleased to welcome her to the team and love the fact that she is sharing her story and inspiring others. In the words of Black Women Rising, let's make a point of 'checking our tits' regularly and if in doubt follow the instructions shared earlier. 

Nina will be back to talk alternative therapies vs chemotherapy but in the meantime you can click here to catch her in this month's episode of The Wright Talk Podcast. Click here to checkout her favourite Wright Walk hair range and follow her hair journey on instagram @frodayss

 

By Katura Barrows-Robotham