BY MAZZI ODU
“I thought something like that would never happen to me,” says Calistar Ankrah. At the time of her diagnosis, life was very much ‘on track’: A glowing career which had led her to work in New York, Dubai and London, a string of successful business ventures in the floristry, interior design and property sectors, a passport that told a story of exotic travel and adventure, enviable looks and a figure that attested to disciplined gym visits and to top it off, a husband and two children under the age of ten.
She laughs at the memory: “I have always been a control freak, from how my career went to what person I would meet and get married to; to when would I have my children. I had no history of breast cancer within my family. I was always obsessed with eating healthily and exercising, so this was something that came out of nowhere.” According to the latest data from the World Health Organisation, there are 2.1 million new cases of breast cancer each year. But who are the women behind the statistics? And what does life look like fighting and surviving a cancer scare? As Breast Cancer Awareness Month draws to a close, I spoke to Nigerian born but now UK based, Calistar, to find out more.
“I was diagnosed with DCIS, or Ductal Carcinoma In Situ, which means you have abnormal cells in your milk ducts. It is often referred to as Stage 0 breast cancer so I was advised to have a mastectomy. At the time I didn’t know what a mastectomy was, I know that might sound strange, but I have many friends who still don’t understand that I have no breast tissue in my left breast whatsoever.” Confronting her own knowledge gap and sharing knowledge has spurred her on in her advocacy work as she feels passionately that women need to be better informed. “A lot of people, particularly in the African and Caribbean communities, don’t take the treatment,” she notes, and yet it is early treatment that provides the best long-term outcomes.
As a woman, conversation inevitably turns to recovery and facing the realities of living with a postoperative body: Was it something that filled her with apprehension and how did she navigate building up her confidence? She notes, “It’s so funny because at the time I was like, just take it out, do a double mastectomy if you want, I don’t care, I just need to be alive and healthy for my kids, no need for reconstruction, I am fine.” But her surgeon begged to differ, “He said, “once all of this is out of the way, you are not going to feel like this. I want to create some breasts for you that when you look at them in the future you will forget this ever happened to you.”” The result was several procedures over the course of a year, where as well a breast implant, she had a 3D tattooed nipple to replace the removed one and her corresponding non-affected breast lifted and reshaped to achieve symmetry. Loss of feeling was an inevitable side-effect, yet in this instance Calistar’s determined former gym-bunny ways came into play: “I have worked hard with physio and exercise to get as much movement and as much feeling in that area as possible. Sometimes I get upset that I don’t have all the feeling that I used to but then I think, you know what? I thank God for just being here. And as for feeling attractive, I feel as womanly and as desirable as I ever felt, maybe even more to be honest!”
This is not to say it was all plain sailing; as with many breast cancer patients further tests resulted in doctors also recommending a course of chemotherapy and radiotherapy with its inevitable side effects of hair loss and her skin feeling sore and discoloured: ”I was in bits because you hear so many terrible things about chemotherapy and radiotherapy… and I was given these creams to rub on my skin after [my] radiotherapy treatment, and I was really concerned about the ingredients of these creams and what they were made out of because when I used them, they did nothing.” It was at this point that Calistar, ever the inventive entrepreneur, began mixing her own concoctions using Shea Butter as a base: “I started with Shea Butter and educated myself on what different herbs and aromatherapy oils can help. This is how I learnt about the healing properties of all the ingredients I have incorporated into Know Your Body.”
Know Your Body is a wellness brand that Calistar has since launched, but it was the cream, one which even astounded her doctor at her next appointment when he saw the improvement in her skin, that is the centrepiece of her latest business. She is a passionate advocate for women, be they survivors of cancer or not, to embrace a holistic approach to health, one which begins with understanding and being in tune with one’s own body. “I am now on this new journey doing what I feel is my life’s purpose… If breast cancer happens to you, I want to help you know where to find healing remedies; to find information to help you get through treatment and advise you with what to do after you have had treatment. And if you are well and healthy I want to assist you to really embrace better lifestyle choices as prevention is better than cure.” In addition to the product line, Calistar also organises events where women can ask her questions about her own journey, seek advice and most important of all find community, especially when stress has taken its toll. Her voice still fizzes with excitement at the possibilities in life, and when asked how she keeps so irrepressibly upbeat in spite of continued future check-ups and follow-up appointments she responds: “A lot of this is in the mind and training the mind that you are going to be okay.” And as we part company one is left feeling she will be more than okay.
Follow Calistar’s journey on instagram: @restoremoi
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Mazzi Odu is a writer, editor and cultural consultant. Her work has focused on fashion, art, design and food and the way cultural identity is informed and evolves through the usage and meaning we place on the items we wear, use and consume.
Follow Mazzi on instagram: @mazziodu