Thriving in the Face of Breast Cancer

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Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer among women, but it isn't something most teens worry about. Nikia Hammmonds-Blakely was no different — that is until she was diagnosed with the disease at 16. But, 13 years later, she's not only alive but successful.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer among women, but it isn't something most teens worry about. Nikia Hammonds-Blakely was no different — that is until she was diagnosed with the disease at 16. That news and the ordeal that followed turned Nikia's world upside-down, but 13 years later, she's not only alive but thriving.

Nikia, thank you for coming on.

Ms. NIKIA HAMMONDS-BLAKELY (Cancer Survivor): Thank you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: So take me back to that moment when you first learned that you had cancer.

Ms. HAMMONDS-BLAKELY: Well, like you said I was 16 years old, a sophomore in high school, preparing for my junior year. And basically while everyone else was thinking about turnabout dances and proms, I've discovered a lump while in the shower one morning getting ready for school. But Farai, I have no family history of breast cancer. No one in my community, my church or school obviously had breast cancer and so I really thought not much about it. After a few weeks, however, I went to the doctor for a routine physical and the doctor confirmed that lump. She said, do you feel that? And I said, yes. And she told me I'm sure it's nothing because girls are developing at a rapid pace at your age, but we need to get a biopsy just in case. And at 16 years old, those results came back, malignant and I had a rare and very aggressive form of cancer and the doctors just couldn't believe it.

CHIDEYA: So before we talk a little bit about your treatment, who were you? You know, what kind of girl were you at 16 before the diagnosis?

Ms. HAMMONDS-BLAKELY: I was just your average mediocre student in school, really didn't take life very seriously. I have a little brother and a little sister. We grew up - a middleclass family in the inner city of Gary, Indiana, you know, it's known as the murder capital of the world. And we could write a book on the poor education and the health care and all of that, but I was your average Jane, very mediocre in school, didn't take life very seriously.

CHIDEYA: Now, what was it like to go through the treatment for your cancer?

Ms. HAMMONDS-BLAKELY: I really felt like the alien of my bunch. As I said, no family history. No one in my church, school, community - there was no one that I could identify with that could tell me, you know what, Nik, I've been through that.

They took a large portion of my left breast and it left me quite disproportionate because I'm a heavy chested woman. Even in high school, I was fairly heavy chested. And I would take socks, roll them up into little balls and try to stuff my bra with them.

And some days, I didn't quite get it right and I was ridiculed not by - not just by a few of the young people. But I also recalled an experience where I was at a banquet and one of the church members kind of across the table and very loudly said, you know what, you need to go to the bathroom and check yourself out, honey, because you're a little lopsided. And I've tried to laugh it off or joke it off and she kept persisting until I left the table crying in the bathroom. So I had quite a few challenges due to the lack of resources available for me back then.

CHIDEYA: So you are someone who changed your life, became more serious about your school, just got your MBA from Capella. How did this change your life in terms of your vision for who you could be?

Ms. HAMMONDS-BLAKELY: Breast cancer literally changed my life because that was the first time where I had to look myself in the mirror and make a decision, am I going to live or am I going to die? I heard what the doctors were telling me but that was not the future that I saw for myself. So I had to make a conscious decision, Farai, at that moment, I have to live my life. And no matter how many days left - that I have left, I'm going to live it to the fullest. And from that day on, I just I had a new drive, I had a new sense of purpose. I went back to school and practically made all A's from that point on, ended up graduating with honors. From high school, became the first person in my family to go and graduate from college. And even after that I said I believe there's more for me, went to graduate school, recently finished at Capella University with my MBA in Marketing. And having gone that far with a 3.8 grade point average I said, why don't I keep going?

And now, I'm in the doctoral program and I can't tell you the sense of pride that I have knowing that sometimes life throws us blows that we don't expect. But if you make the conscious decision that you're going to live through it and not only live through it but use your life and your experience to help someone else, it can become the greatest blessing of your life and certainly where I'm at in my life now is a testimony of that.

CHIDEYA: Well, Nikia, your story is inspirational and I definitely wish you strength and courage, which you have in abundance, to keep doing what you do.

Ms. HAMMONDS-BLAKELY: Thank you so much.

CHIDEYA: That was cancer survivor Nikia Hammonds-Blakely. She's just been named to the Susan G. Komen Young Women's National Advisory Council. That organization promotes breast cancer awareness among young women.

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