Dr. Carol-Ann Benn is considered to be one of the top breast-cancer experts in South Africa. Her commitment and determination to the field has seen her help many women during their life changing struggle with this hereditary condition.
After working as a surgeon at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital for six years, in 1998, Carol-Ann was faced with the decision of which direction to take her career in.
With the help of Dr Myron Lange, a breast cancer specialist with 30 years experience, Carol-Ann learned about breast disease, which furthered her love for the subject. She has subsequently established a breast cancer clinic at three other hospitals: Baragwanath, Helen Joseph and Milpark. In addition to this remarkable achievement, Carol-Ann is a doctor who has built incredible loyalty to her patients and at Wits University, where she currently teaches.
This brilliant woman knew from a young age that healing was her calling, “I remember as a small girl telling my Dad that I want to do medicine, so that I can help people and make a difference.”
Choosing a specialization was not an easy choice, at first Carol-Ann spent most of her time in trauma surgery, but once she became a senior surgical registrar at a breast clinic in Johannesburg Hospital, she knew she was in the right place, “The previous surgeon in charge had retired and I immediately bonded with these rows upon rows of women. The stricken faces of those just diagnosed with cancer and the worried faces of those thinking that maybe their breast pain, nipple discharges or breast lumps were cancerous.”
A self-stated career highlight for Carol-Ann is having helped establish “world-class or reconstructive centres in private and Government hospitals, which offers counseling advice and holistic health.” The Breast Health Foundation that she has started is a national body, with the purpose of both patients and medical practitioners through the means of forums and outreach.
Balancing a career with family life is a struggle that most professional mothers endure, but Carol-Ann considers herself lucky. She receives good support from her family, especially her husband, and she works extremely hard, showing true dedication to her work and patients. She believes in empowering other people and does not believe in failure. “A person should look past weakness and seek your strengths. I strongly believe in reaching for my goals and obtaining them.”
An average day for her is non-stop busy, but fortunately she has been able to channel her sometimes hyperactivity into successful multitasking, often working past midnight. Yes, she can definitely be considered as a woman to look up to, as she has broken barriers in a very male dominated field, “I am often regarded by my male counter-parts as an oddity as I am the only woman in my field. I had to overcome the [patriarchal] attitudes of males who did not believe that I could succeed.”
Carol- Ann has certainly helped to bring empathy to medicine, “I had to teach my colleagues who were not seeing the greater picture to help people. I was the first woman to break through a male-dominated profession and make a success of my career.”
Carol-Ann’s daily inspiration is her patients, women with breast cancer. She is driven to provide the best possible health care for them and ensures that their health needs are met. She will often see a patient in her private practice, but then because of the patients financial constraints, refer them for surgery to a public hospital. She never turns anyone away and does not charge people who cannot afford to pay.
“I am a complete optimistic, an idealist who sees the whole picture and works toward it. I am extremely hardworking and don’t believe in failure.”
Consulting both women and men with breast problems in all walks of life and helping them is only part of what Carol-Ann’s job entails. Unlike most doctors, Carol-Ann gives her patients her cellphone number so that they can call her if they are having a difficult time.
The one thing that Carol has not yet achieved in her career or life that she hopes to is to see surgical breast units in Provinces throughout the country, and make every woman aware of breast examination and mammograms.
“The fact that breast cancer is not a flu and that it is not running around the body 24 hours has made us realize that there is no such thing as an emergency mastectomy, and the patient and not the doctor is the centre of the process.”
Carol has had many job offers from overseas, but she has resisted them. “This is not about the money”, she says, I love this country and would not think of moving.” And we as South African women are all the better for it, and for dedicated women like Dr. Carol-Ann Benn.