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TONY BEST: Turning a negative into a positive


TONY BEST: Turning a negative into a positive

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LEILA SPRINGER, a charming woman who has made Ontario her home away from home, is convinced “things happen for a reason”.

Sometimes it is that grim news received can be turned into a motivational campaign that spurs people into action so they wouldn’t feel sorry for themselves.

There are also times when an unnerving experience can lead to a career change.

That is exactly what happened to a Bajan woman who grew up in Indian Ground in St Peter after she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer in 1999 and was given a 50-50 chance of surviving it,” she recalled. “The first doctor thought the lump in my breast was a cyst. But six months and four doctors later it was confirmed I had breast cancer.”

Back then, Springer was a financial comptroller and operations manager at a manufacturing plant in Toronto, and she decided to take action. First, she read up on the disease and then underwent the treatment regimen: surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

“The truth is that the initial diagnosis triggered fear. But it also spurred desire to live and that’s what happened in my case,” she said.

But her story wasn’t simply about her successful battle with breast cancer.

A key chapter is that the mother of three children, an ordained evangelical minister and motivational speaker, decided she must help save the lives of thousands of women, especially black females dealing with a similar experience.

“Far too many women of African and Caribbean descent in Canada are not open to a discussion about health issues, especially about seeking care for cancer. That’s particularly true of women who like me came to Canada as adults. Far too many of them die because of the lack of knowledge of the disease and because the diagnosis is much too late. Many don’t know if auntie or mummy had breast cancer. They just know they died. That must change and we are trying to change it.”

Her work has attracted national and provincial attention in Canada.

On a recent weekday morning when readers opened the Toronto Star, one of Canada’s largest daily newspapers, they read about how an immigrant from Barbados had linked arms with Canadian researchers, health care advocates and others to create and launch Toronto’s first peer education programme and was reaching immigrant women of colour with information and services designed to help them deal with the disease.

“The programme, based in Scarborough’s Malvern neighbourhood, trained people in the community to educate their peers on the importance of mammograms and pap smear tests,” reported the newspaper.

A vehicle for much of her work is the Olive Branch of Hope, a non-profit social services organisation which she co-founded and runs.

The Bajan has also written a 200-page book, So Glad I Made It, that tells a poignant story of her experience while articulating a vision or the future.

There’s more. Springer was the principal organiser of an international conference sponsored by Scotiabank and hosted by the World Conference on Breast Cancer Foundation of which she was the president. It was held in Hamilton, Ontario in 2011 and attended by about 500 delegates.

“We are working to break the code of silence about breast cancer,” she said. “People die in Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago and in Canada because of a lack of knowledge about the disease. Olive Branch of Hope is working with black women to save lives. We want to take the issue to parliamentarians in Ottawa  so they can see the urgent need for services for women of colour in Canada. We also want to work in the Caribbean, Barbados in particular.”

Actually, she is joining about 50 Bajans in Barbados for the 50th anniversary of this country’s independence to pay tribute to those who helped to make the country what it is today.

Tony Best is the NATION’s North American correspondent. Email: [email protected]