BY: ALYSSA MAHADEO
Born in a small village, in a small parish, on the small island of Barbados, Leila Springer entered life in the fast lane after becoming a single mother at the age of 15.
“I had a baby, when I was a baby myself,” Leila explained. “I had to take care of somebody else when I didn’t know how to take care of myself.”
Blessed with a child at such a young age, she had to learn the hard way, her son taking priority in a life she had not yet imagined for herself. Leila emigrated to Canada in 1971, joining her boyfriend who she married, and began to build a life with in this new and foreign place.
“I became pregnant shortly after arriving here, and honestly I didn’t have time to think,” Leila said, “I knew that I wanted to make sure that we could have a nice home for our children, with shelter over our heads and food on the table to ensure that our children would be well taken care of.” With family being her ultimate priority Leila dedicated much of her time to ensure that her children would live comfortable and fulfilling lives. “Both my husband and I worked hard, as we needed to make sure that our children were well provided for.”
As many of us know, life is a journey that takes many twists and turns, things change and circumstances alter our reality without a moment’s notice. For Leila, that moment came when she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer.
“At that moment, I began to think about life, about mortality, and think about what I had done which I found to be nothing worth mentioning except to raise a family” Leila shares. “It made me really examine myself, and question my purpose to ask ‘why am I here?’”
With her cancer diagnosis occupying her mind, she prayed to get through this difficult and traumatic experience. “I looked around one day, and the support I felt I needed as a black woman was not there, the material I needed as a black woman to help me through my diagnosis of breast cancer was not there,” Leila said.
Desperate to find some sort of reprieve from the loneliness she felt in her solitary battle, Leila joined a support group. “I thought it would help, but they unknowingly excluded me.”
One day while receiving chemotherapy treatments, feeling depressed about fighting this battle alone Leila decided that this was not going to be the way other women diagnosed with cancer spent their time. “I had to do something to help them, and so I began my journey to start my own organization to help other women in their fight against breast cancer.”
Leila founded the Olive Branch of Hope, a cancer support group in 1999, and it transformed into an organization by 2001. They are a non-charitable organization founded by breast cancer survivors hoping to provide help and information to newly diagnosed individuals and their families who are seeking support during a turbulent time in their lives. They are concerned about the whole person, mind, body and soul, not just their cancer.
The Olive Branch of Hope’s main focus is largely to assist women of African-Caribbean Heritage affected by cancer and other women of culturally diverse backgrounds. They also work in partnership with health agencies to design programs, develop and distribute health information and facilitate activities to support underserved cultural communities in Canada.
“I like to highlight what I did to help others, more than what I’ve accomplished for myself because at the end of the day that really doesn’t matter,” Leila said. “At the end of the day what really matters is how your life has impacted someone else’s, and what good you have done in this society.
Year round The Olive Branch of Hope’s research team is hard at work searching for answers, gathering information, and examining correlations to discover the answers to some of the difficult questions surrounding breast cancer. “I feel like the world is a better place because I came here, and it’s not because I was a part of a big corporation.” Leila shared. “I believe that health is important and I believe that it doesn’t matter how much money a person has if they don’t have good health it becomes useless.”
“One day we will hold up a flag and say that we have found a cure for this disease,” Leila said with conviction.
“Until then women of the next generation need to remember that they are never too young, they need to be mindful and take care of themselves. Make sure when choosing a career to create a balance, don’t just dedicate 90 percent to your career and 19 percent to yourself you are an important commodity, take special care of yourself and do what you can to help others.”