Fulfilling a long-held desire to pursue a career in medicine, Benn spent much of her clinical rotation working in trauma surgery, but longed for more interaction with patients. “Trauma’s very impersonal, as are many aspects of surgery,” she says. “I love people and seeing the stricken faces of women sitting lined up at the former Jo’burg General Hospital Breast Clinic, chatting with camaraderie, even though they were so scared of their possible diagnoses, ignited my interest in a career in breast cancer treatment”.
Opening the first breast clinic at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in 1997, Benn began revolutionising breast cancer treatment in SA. “When we first started the clinic, which functioned once a week alongside the urology clinic, we saw two patients with breast problems,” she says. “By 2000, I was seeing 150 women a week and I’d set up a foundation to improve awareness in the non-urban areas.”
With a plan to start a unit providing multi-disciplinary treatment of breast cancer in a government hospital, Benn forged ahead, despite opposition from the then Baragwanath head of department. “I don’t see obstacles,” she says. “They’re merely disturbances in the force you need to overcome. The motto I live by is: ‘There’s no problem that doesn’t have a solution.’ If you can’t find the answer, look at the problem from another angle.” Accordingly, she approached the Gauteng National Health Department, presented a plan and was moved to the Helen Joseph Hospital to start the Helen Joseph Breast Care Clinic in 2005. She also runs the Netcare Breast Care Centre at the Milpark Hospital, enabling her to work in both a public and private hospital setting.
It was her innate tenacity that helped Benn overcome the patriarchal attitudes she encountered while forging a career in a male-dominated field. “When I started as a junior registrar, my senior said he was happy to date me, but not to teach me and that women shouldn’t do surgery,” she recalls. “What an inspiration for someone who loves a challenge and wants to turn an obstacle on its head! Ignorance and intolerance are the most frightening diseases the world has to deal with. One can accept such attitudes or stand up them and prove, through one’s actions, that those narrow-minded ideals aren’t the answer. Adversity is an opportunity to toughen up and reassess yourself.”