Battling Back from Breast Cancer

At 16, Nikia Hammonds-Blakely discovered she had a rare form of breast cancer, but she was determined that wouldn't be the end of her story. How she reacted to that adversity changed her life.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Some people ask for material things and have those wishes granted. Other people face life or death situations far too young.

Nikia Hammonds-Blakely was only 16 when she was diagnosed with a rare form of breast cancer in 1994. How she reacted to that adversity changed her life forever.

Nikia, welcome.

Ms. NIKIA HAMMONDS-BLAKELY (Council Member, Young Women's National Advisory Council of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure): Thank you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: It's great to talk to you again.

Ms. HAMMONDS-BLAKELY: Yes.

CHIDEYA: We spoke to a little bit about your struggle and focused a lot on the medical issues that you faced. But let's get a little bit more focused on the spiritual and emotional issues.

Ms. HAMMONDS-BLAKELY: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: Who were you before you found out about that diagnosis? What kind of a person were you?

Ms. HAMMONDS-BLAKELY: I have to say I was your typical teenager. I really didn't take life very seriously. I mean I had not much thought of the future, just kind of lived day by day, watching TV, you know, going to movies, going out with friends, but really just didn't take life very seriously even in school as a sophomore. I would describe myself as mediocre at best.

CHIDEYA: So when you found yourself in a position of finding a lump in your breast, what did you first do?

Ms. HAMMONDS-BLAKELY: Well, I was in the shower while I was preparing for school one morning. I felt the lump and I didn't react initially because no one in my family on neither side ever had breast cancer. I didn't know of anyone who had breast cancer. And so I wasn't overly concerned. But luckily, two weeks later, I had to go to the doctor for routine physical and there, the doctor felt the lump and suggested that I receive a biopsy.

CHIDEYA: Nikia, this is a situation where, you know, for example, with this series that we're doing, Great Expectations, we talk to people like Anthony who just joined us, who really focused on the financial aspect of what he was doing and putting himself in a position to receive what other people could give him on the level of a material good. We also talked just recently with Judge Lynn Toler and journalist Ellis Cose about how people in different cultures transcend things.

When you think about what was in your life that could have prepared you for a moment like this, was there anything? Was there a spiritual aspect? Was there a family aspect? When you first had to go through this medical issue, what did you turn to?

Ms. HAMMONDS-BLAKELY: Without question, if it was not for God in my life, I would not have made it through that experience. I have a very supportive family. But because of my religious upbringing, I was able to draw to fact that our lives have purpose and God allows things in our lives. And I was able to really take that to bridge the gap of those painful moments to that experience.

CHIDEYA: What did your friends think about this whole situation? I mean were you able to be open with them? Were you able to have a childhood or an adolescence where you could laugh and joke with your friends? Or did you find yourself being increasingly isolated?

Ms. HAMMONDS-BLAKELY: Truthfully, I isolated myself. I didn't let a lot of people know about what I was going through certainly because I was already battling the insecurity and feelings of, you know, young girls at that age are already battling with their body image and all of that. And the surgery left my left breast considerably smaller than the other. And so I would try to just get through ball of sock to try to even them out or I would just stay away from the crowd. I found most of my refuge in my family and the church members in my community.

CHIDEYA: So what does it mean to have faith when you're a teen? What does it mean to believe in something that's larger than yourself when you're just starting your life?

Ms. HAMMONDS-BLAKELY: This is what I learned from that experience. You know how we learned that in the beginning, God created heaven and earth. He did it by simply speaking it into existence. He said let there be light and there was light. And so when I realized that, well, if he says that we were created in the image and likeliness of God, then I have the same ability. I can speak things into existence. And now I'll never forget the day that I just - it all came to a hit for me.

I was laying on the floor of my father's bathroom, crying. I wrapped myself around the toilet just crying, feeling like, oh, God, am I going to die. And at that moment, I remember specifically saying to God, I know that millions of women have died from this disease, but if you're real, now is the time that I need you to prove it to me. I want to live. I believe I can live. I want to live and not die. And, Farai, it could be called a miracle by most because I was able to go back to the doctors and there was no more trace of cancer.

Now the thing about it is that they told me I have fibrocystic breasts and that lumps would continue to form for the rest of my life, that I would have to have a double mastectomy to avoid a life full of surgeries and cancer reoccurrences. But it's been 13 years since that point and I've had no reoccurrences of the breast cancer. And I specifically believe, because I chose that day to speak a life over myself. And that's the path that I follow.

CHIDEYA: Have you had a positive impact, do you think, on other people because of what you've been through?

Ms. HAMMONDS-BLAKELY: I certainly have tried to. I believe that the experiences that we have are simply to help somebody else so that when someone else goes through the same thing, you can be able to tell them, I went through that, I made it, here's how I did it. And through that experience, I have to like my life has been so enriched and blessed. I've been able to travel this country even as this early - this young age and tell women twice my age, half my age, of different nationalities, colors, ethnicities, if you are ever diagnosed with breast cancer, it does not have to mean a death sentence. Look at my life and know that amazing things can result from it.

And if I can just say that breast cancer diagnosis only fueled my will to live. It gave me a drive that I'll never have before. The day that I decided I wanted to live, I went back to school, made straight As, graduated at the top of my class, on the National Honor Society, became the first person in my family on either side, to graduate from college.

This year, well, in 2007, in February, I received my MBA and now I'm in the Ph.D. program and it's all because of this drive, the - it was my wakeup call. It's nothing like facing death that makes you have to make a decision to live and maximize life whether (unintelligible) to what they're telling you.

CHIDEYA: Well, Nikia, it's great to talk to you again. We'll be talking more in this series about faith, the role of faith in Great Expectations. Thank you so much.

Ms. HAMMONDS-BLAKELY: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Nikia Hammonds-Blakely is a breast cancer survivor who now sits on the board of the Young Woman's National Advisory Council for the Cancer Awareness Group of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. She talked with us from her home in Crown Point, Indiana.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: To listen to the show or subscribe to our podcast, visit our Web site, nprnewsandnotes.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public radio consortium.

Next week, the latest on the economy and a look ahead at New Hampshire's primary.

I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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