Kemi Olowe was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in 2018 at just 33 years old. The diagnosis came as a shock, not just because Kemi had no family history of breast cancer, but because she was repeatedly assured by medical professionals that her symptoms were simply hormonal.
Kemi says her faith – along with the support of her friends and family – is one of the things that got her through the past few years and has kept her positive. It is also the inspiration behind the affirmation she has chosen for her George T-shirt: "I am a beautiful masterpiece."
She explains: "My faith is very important to me as a Christian and there's a Bible scripture from Ephesians 2:10 which talks about God saying that we're created in his image and a beautiful masterpiece. And it's one of the things that I held onto while I was going through my journey. I am a beautiful masterpiece, even if they remove a breast, it is all physical and I'm still a masterpiece regardless. It's something that I've always kept with me."
Kemi took part in a special photoshoot for this year's Tickled Pink T-shirts alongside other women who have also had a breast cancer diagnosis and celebrities who have been impacted by the disease in some way or want to raise awareness of the importance of breast checking.
As part of this year’s Tickled Pink campaign, Breast Cancer Now asked supporters to share their confidence-boosting slogans or positive affirmations that have helped them through their breast cancer diagnosis. From the many affirmations sent in, Kemi’s phrase was one of the final three chosen to appear on a T-shirt.
The T-shirts are available in selected Asda stores and online here at George.com. A minimum of 10% of sales will be donated to our Tickled Pink charity partners Breast Cancer Now and CoppaFeel at a 70/30 split respectively. Along with Kemi’s message "I am a beautiful masterpiece" the other two chosen were, "Grow through what you go through" and "Tip toe if you must but take a step".
Even before her breast cancer diagnosis Kemi had had a tough few years. She and her husband had been trying for a baby and had already had four rounds of IVF and one miscarriage before she became pregnant with their son Samuel.
It was while she was breastfeeding Samuel that Kemi first felt a lump in her breast. At first, she put off doing anything about it because she thought it was a blocked milk duct, but when it remained painful she made an appointment to see her GP.
"It was really painful and my husband just really encouraged me to go. The GP I saw said there's nothing to worry about because 'cancerous lumps don't hurt'. Those were his words. He examined me and said he couldn't find a lump but because I'd complained, he would send me for a scan.
"When I had the scan, they told me it was hormonal – probably breast milk. Your body can take up to 18 months to readjust and get back to normal after childbirth, so they sent me on my way. That was in February, but by July I could feel the lump in my armpit and I thought, no, something's definitely not right. It was really sore to touch.
"I obviously had to go back to my GP for a referral again. This time, the lady on the phone told me not to come in as I knew my own body, instead she sent me straight for the scan. I returned to the breast clinic and this time, the consultant was a woman. She said, show me how you check your breasts. I told her that I just feel around my breast, because I had no clue. I didn't know what the correct way was. She told me that I was not checking them correctly and as I laid down, she talked me through what I should be doing and looking out for. Once she had placed markers where she wanted them to focus on, I was sent to the next room for the scan.
"It so happened that I was scanned by the same lady who who scanned me earlier on in the year, and she said, 'Why are you back? Don't you remember this is breast milk, it's hormonal.' There was a student in the room and when she began to scan the student pointed something out on the screen. They zoomed in, took some more pictures, left the room, came back and took some more images. I then had a biopsy, then a blood test. The next day I was called for a mammogram, I was called for a bone scan. I thought, ‘yep, something's definitely up’. And two weeks later I was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer.
"It was really, really traumatic. I was a hundred percent convinced this was a trapped milk duct. If my husband hadn't really pressured me into going, I wouldn’t have gone to get it checked out.
"Samuel is my first child - I didn't really know what to expect from my body and prior to that, I'd gone through four rounds of IVF. I just thought, well, maybe this is just the after-effects of having a successful round of IVF and my body just going back to normal. So, it was really traumatic to be hit with that after five years of waiting for my son and then having the best year ever, just being at home and enjoying being a mum to being slapped with breast cancer, with a child who's not even 18 months old."
Kemi, who lives in Essex and works as a self-employed mortgage broker, went on to have a mastectomy followed by six months of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiotherapy. She had to have ongoing physiotherapy for her right arm, meaning she had to leave the business she had started with her husband in its first year.
"I cried for the first evening. It was my dad's 60th birthday, we had planned this really big surprise for him and everything. All of that got cancelled. I thought I've ruined my dad's birthday.
”Everyone came to the house and we told the family, and one of the things that was consistent, which I absolutely loved, is that no one cried in front of me. All they said was, 'It's okay. You know, we're going to get through this together' and we prayed about it.
"I spoke to my pastor from church, and she said something really key to me, 'Kemi, this disease is not unto death,, we're going to get through it.' The next day I woke up, I went to the gym and I don't know what happened, but something immediately clicked. I thought, you can either feel sorry for yourself or let's just get through this because this too shall pass. And that was my mindset throughout the whole thing. That it's just for a moment, it's just for a moment. And that was it. I literally had peace that I'm going to make it.
" I remember my husband saying, "babes, no one's going to take your place being Samuel's mummy. You're going to be here for all of his milestones, everything’. I said, ‘yeah, I am’.
“I started picturing Samuel going to school for the first time, doing his GCSEs, getting married; I started picturing all these things that I'm going to be there for. I realised that mental health is so key.”
Kemi hopes that by sharing her story she will help educate others, particularly within the black community where she says things like IVF and cancer can be a subject that no one wants to talk about.
"It's kind of like an unspoken rule that you don't really talk about anything negative, things like this it's hush, hush, keep it within the family. But going through something as traumatic as the fertility journey, you feel so lonely and isolated and then you then find out that millions of other people going through the same thing, you think really?
"With cancer I didn't talk about it at first whilst I was going through it. One of the reasons why I did that was because when I did tell people, I loved the fact that people said, 'Oh my God, we'd never know!' But when I did speak about it, I got quite a few people in my Instagram DMs saying, 'I'm going through the same thing. I haven't really told anyone – it's quite lonely'.
"It's unfair for anyone to go through something alone, whether it's cancer, infertility, any disease or illness.
"You never think it will happen to you because no one's talking about it.That's one of the reasons why I talk about it: number one, check your breasts. Number two, it can happen to anybody regardless of your age, regardless of whether you have a family history or not.
"The ultimate thing is that you need to know your normal and be able to have a voice to go to your GP, or your medical professional, without feeling you're bothering anyone or without feeling that it's ‘not really a black person's disease’ – this disease doesn't discriminate. It can happen to anyone."