The pink crusader: Philippa De Cuir’s inspiring journey to defeat breast cancer stigma

By Esther Muhozi
On 14 October 2023 at 10:21

Philippa Kigubu Decuir, Founder of the Breast Cancer Initiative East Africa (BCIEA), Philippa is not just a breast cancer survivor; she’s a beacon of hope, a warrior against stigma, and a relentless advocate for awareness. Her journey is nothing short of inspirational, fueled by a promise she made to herself after losing her beloved sister to the same cruel affliction.

"Today is a beautiful day," Philippa beams, in an exclusive interview with IGIHE ,the indomitable gratitude emanating from her every word. Her vivacity is contagious, as she opens up about her passion and life’s mission. "This is the Pink Wellness House, our haven for patients, survivors, and anyone seeking knowledge about breast cancer. It’s my heart’s project, my way of honoring my sister’s memory."

She holds up a pink ribbon, a symbol universally recognized as a sign of solidarity in the fight against breast cancer. For Philippa, it carries profound personal significance. "Breast cancer entered our lives through my sister, who, tragically, didn’t survive," she reflects. "But after her loss, I became a Pink Lady - a grandma pink, Nana pink, and Auntie pink - you name it."

The story Philippa shares is heartrending. The circumstances of transporting her sister’s body from England to Rwombashi, Congo, encapsulate the emotional turmoil she faced. She couldn’t explain the magnitude of the impact, but she knew it was profound. Her resolve to tackle breast cancer head-on was ignited.

Surviving breast cancer, Philippa realized her privilege lay in her awareness. The knowledge of the disease, its symptoms, risk factors, treatments, and options were her lifeline, something her sister never had the opportunity to grasp. It was a privilege shared by countless women in high-income countries but denied to those in Rwanda, Uganda, and other parts of Africa. The question became her life’s mission: Does your location determine your fate in the face of breast cancer?

A seasoned educator, Philippa decided to turn herself into a walking poster. She donned pink wherever she went, a visual cue for anyone curious about the pink lady. This served as a conversation starter, a chance to inform and educate people about breast cancer. She became a pink ambassador, her story a beacon of hope.

In 2007, Philippa ventured to Rwanda to assess the state of breast cancer awareness and treatment. The shock of discovering the absence of oncologists and proper cancer services compelled her to take action. She met 27 women who had undergone mastectomies, their breasts taken from them. One woman’s breast had been erroneously removed, leaving her with the sick one and once Philippa approached her . Her resolute declaration, "I can’t die as a Rwandan woman without a breast," was the catalyst for Philippa’s return.

Stigma, silence, and shame were rampant. Philippa realized that awareness was the key to early detection, the key to survival. She and BCIEA took on the role of educators, dispelling myths, such as it is a communicable disease, it will kill you, it is a curse and so much more providing evidence-based information to empower individuals. Three simple words became their mantra: "Kunde" (Love yourself), "Imenye" (Know yourself), and "Isuzumishe" (Get checked).

The Pink Wellness House became a haven for patients and survivors, a place where crafts made with love and care, like knitted knockers, served to rebuild shattered self-esteem. They provided breast prosthesis to help women regain their confidence, bridging the chasm of negative body image that often accompanies breast cancer.

But BCIEA’s reach extends beyond this physical haven. Philippa emphasizes the importance of prevention through her wellness garden, where women learn to cook for their health. .

From a small group of 80’s, BCIEA now reaches thousands. And these people have been impacted through different awareness strategies such as a walk happening on Sunday 15th October 2023, with a Theme "Why Do You Walk" . Starting From at BK Arena to Green Hills Academy , a walk to raise breast cancer awareness, has become an annual highlight that aims to dispel misconceptions that perpetuate stigma.

In the warm embrace of the Pink Wellness House, Philippa De Cuir’s vision is taking shape. In her unwavering commitment to awareness and education, she offers a lifeline to women, men, and children alike. Philippa’s story is a testament to the power of knowledge, love, and resilience, a story that promises a future where breast cancer is not whispered in hushed tones but openly discussed, where myth and stigma are replaced by hope and healing.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2020, there were 2.3 million women diagnosed with breast cancer and 685,000 deaths worldwide. By the end of 2020, 7.8 million women were still living after being diagnosed with breast cancer within the previous 5 years, establishing it as the most common cancer globally.

The WHO Global Breast Cancer Initiative (GBCI) aims to decrease global breast cancer mortality by 2.5% annually, potentially preventing 2.5 million breast cancer deaths worldwide between 2020 and 2040.

A reduction in global breast cancer mortality by 2.5% each year would prevent 25% of breast cancer deaths by 2030 and 40% by 2040 among women under 70 years old. The three key strategies for accomplishing these goals are: promoting early detection, ensuring timely diagnosis, and offering comprehensive breast cancer management.

Phillipa Kibubu Decuir, is a renowned breast cancer advocate and founder of Breast Cancer Initiative East Africa (BCIEA).