When we hear ‘cancer’ we often fear and believe that it is the end for the person who has it. Some people choose not to go for screening, for fear of what the results will be. Phillipa Decuir Kibugu, a breast cancer survivor for 27 years now, also known as ‘the pink lady’ and the founder of Breast Cancer Initiative East Africa (BCIEA), was never discouraged, nor did she fear that her life was ending when she found out that she had breast cancer. Instead it was an opportunity for her to spread awareness and help those who ‘lived in the dark’ due to lack of awareness. Kibugu was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and moved to Rwanda for a while as a child, and then went to live in the US. Phillipa Decuir Kibugu (R) with a breast prosthesis that the organisation makes to replace the part of the breast that has been removed. Photo (and cover)/Willy Mucyo “Breast cancer was first introduced in my family by my elder sister Mabel, she was living in Lubumbashi where there were no oncologists, no cancer services, not even awareness month of October as we have today. She didn’t even know she had breast cancer and when things got worse she was taken to London but it was too late, cancer had already spread from the breast to the liver and she did not survive,” she recalls. Kibugu recalls the memories of her sister dying as something that changed her life completely. She went back to the US after her sister’s death and was dedicated to doing something about the scourge that had taken her sister’s life. “I went back to the US where I lived with my husband and children, a country that did everything in fighting breast cancer, I learned starting from there and decided to learn until I can teach others so that what happened to my sister doesn’t happen to anyone else,” she says. The BCIEA founder also started making loofahs during lockdown last year. Photos/File She was diagnosed in 1994, but unlike her sister, she was informed and in a country that had everything she needed to be treated. “I was lucky I had all the support I needed to take me through the journey, I am a faithful believer, I had medical attention, friends, family, and the church there for me, and I survived,” she says. Second chances Instead of throwing herself in the joy of survival and enjoying life, she was filled with heavy questions and wanted answers. “I recalled my sister’s death and asked myself, would my sister be alive if she was in the US? I asked myself too many questions that became a catalyst to remind me that God has given me a chance in my life and I better use it,” she says. Kibugu addresses people after the Ulinzi Breast Cancer Walk that her initiative started. She wanted to come to Rwanda and see how things are, but had to start learning all about breast cancer before coming back home, because everyone who went to the US would go to her as she was known as someone who had been through it. Therefore, she started a support group for immigrants and joined one of the biggest African American breast cancer organisations called ‘Sisters Network’ for seven years, with the purpose of learning more about cancer. Kibugu came back to Rwanda in 2007; she had to sell the expensive clothes she owned with the help of four friends to raise enough money to help start her cause. “When I came to Rwanda, the country was still recovering from the Genocide, there was no oncologist, no services to treat cancer,” she says. She decided to come back to Rwanda and teach everything she knew about breast cancer, because of what she saw, the stigma, and the missing information around breast cancer at the time. She decided to go back and tell her family that she was going to stay in Rwanda to inform and spread awareness. She registered her organisation of breast cancer in the US in 2008, and in Rwanda as Breast Cancer Initiative East Africa in 2009. “I put aside what I was doing back in the US to come and teach women, mothers, children, and even males and I have never regretted that decision,” she says. Being a breast cancer survivor for 27 years is a tool for everyone that thinks breast cancer is a death sentence. She wants each woman in Rwanda to take charge in knowing that early detection saves lives, and to be aware of what cancer is and everything around it. With her need to inform and spread awareness, she wishes to see more men supporting, understanding and taking care of their wives with breast cancer. “I will not change anything that happened to me because of breast cancer, I have realised the strengths and the willpower each one of us has that we don’t know about until something tragic happens, out of the bad the good can happen,” she says.