It’s often thought that breast cancer only affects women over 40. But, unfortunately, that’s not the case. Breast cancer is rare in young women, but it does happen. And, when a young woman is diagnosed with breast cancer, it can be shocking. At a time in life when most young women are focused on family and career, all of a sudden issues of treatment, recovery, and survivorship suddenly take top priority. Nikia Hammonds-Blakely joins the podcast today to share her story.
Having survived a life-altering diagnosis of breast cancer at the age of only 16 years old, Nikia recently discovered pre-cancerous cells during a mammogram and biopsy. Nikia decided to prevent the likely reoccurrence of breast cancer by undergoing a bilateral mastectomy. Through all the challenges, Nikia has flourished, and is now an author, singer, songwriter and motivational speaker and serves as a spokesperson for Susan G. Komen’s “Know Your Girls” campaign.
Having survived a life-altering bout with Breast Cancer at age 16 years old, Nikia Hammonds-Blakely is an author, singer, songwriter and motivational speaker who focuses her message on receiving physical and emotional healing with the help of God and family.
When she was a sophomore in high school, she found a lump in her breast. Not even fathoming it could be cancer – no one on either side of her family had ever suffered from the disease – she didn’t think much of it. However, during a physical a short time later, her physician suggested performing a biopsy just to be sure. It turned out to be cancer, and a very aggressive form of cancer at that. She was terrified. Her doctors recommended a total mastectomy, but Nikia resisted. Instead she underwent several months of radiation and
As traumatic as it was, Nikia says her cancer also gave her a resolve she never had before. Until her diagnosis, she says she was only an average student. But once she decided she would beat her cancer and make the most of her life, she earned straight A’s and became the first person in her family to go to college.
But she wouldn’t stop there. She would go on to earn an MBA, and is completing her PhD program studying organizational management. Today, at age 38, Nikia is conquering a life-long struggle with obesity, through a healthy diet and exercise, resulting in a 70lb weight-loss. She says surviving cancer has motivated her to take control of her total health, and she finds great joy in encourages others to do the same. Still, her greatest lies ahead of her.
After discovering pre-cancerous cells during a recent mammogram & biopsy, Nikia decided to take a very proactive step to prevent the likely reoccurrence of breast cancer by undergoing a bilateral prophylactic mastectomy.
Taking her mission of new life and health to a new level, Nikia continues to tirelessly educate young women that the disease can strike at a very young age. She says her greatest opportunity to date, was traveling to the continent of Africa, where she was able to minister to young girls, ages 13 &14, who were battling stage 4 breast cancer. Nikia rallied the support of her community and proudly presented young, underprivileged African patients with nearly $1,000 worth of bras, prosthetics and medical supplies and over $115,000 to support the Princess Nikki Breast Cancer Foundation in Abuja, Nigeria.
Nikia’s story and work has been profiled in such media outlets as the Chicago Sun Times, Glamour Magazine, O Magazine, Women’s World, Southern Living, The Yolanda Adams Morning Show, and interview documentaries on TVOne & BET, just to name a few.
Nikia also serves as a worship leader for The Potter’s House North Dallas, under the leadership of Pastor Sheryl Brady and Bishop T.D. Jakes; she is also a member of the newly formed Daystar Choir, under the leadership of Marcus & Joni Lamb.
Most recently, Nikia has started The CHAMPION Promise Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the empowerment and healthy lifestyles of high risk and underserved women. She has also released a new music single entitled “Champion,” along with her memoir “The Fight: Chronicles of a Champion”.
Adam: [00:00:03] From Susan G. Komen, this is Real Pink, a podcast exploring real stories, struggles and triumphs related to breast cancer. We’re taking the conversation from the doctor’s office to your living room.
[00:00:16] You know, many of us think that breast cancer only affects women over forty, but unfortunately, that’s not the case. Breast cancer is rare among young women, but it does happen; and when young women are diagnosed with breast cancer, it can be shocking. At a time in life when most young women are focused on family and career, all of a sudden, issues of treatment, recovery and survivorship suddenly take top priority.
[00:00:36] Having survived a life-altering diagnosis of breast cancer at the age of sixteen years old, our next guest, Nikia Hammonds-Blakely, recently discovered pre-cancerous cells during a recent mammogram and biopsy. Nikia decided to prevent that likely recurrence of breast cancer by undergoing a bilateral mastectomy. Through all the challenges, Nikia has flourished, and is now an author, singer, songwriter, and motivational speaker, and serves as the spokesperson for Susan G. Komen’s “Know Your Girls” campaign. Nikia, you sound amazing! And welcome to the show.
Nikia: [00:01:09] Thank you, Adam. I’m excited to be here.
Adam: [00:01:12] I’m excited to chat with you. You’ve got this really exciting, very personable sort of energy about you, and I can’t wait for our listeners to get to know you. So, this is really an honor. Thank you so much for joining me. So, just tell me a little bit about your story. The diagnosis, your life since then, the recurrence, and how you’re making the best of everything, right?
Nikia: [00:01:32] Yeah. Well, the short version of a long story is, I was sixteen years old, getting ready for school one morning, just like any other day, and while I was in the shower, I felt a lump. I had no history of breast cancer; breast cancer was not a part of my vocabulary. But one day, I did mention it to my mum after realizing the lump wasn’t going away, and we went to the doctor. The doctor also felt it and she assured me, “Nikia, I’m sure it’s nothing. You’re just sixteen, you’re just developing,” but she insisted that we go ahead and have the biopsy, and not only was it breast cancer, but it was a very rare and aggressive form of breast cancer at age sixteen. So, to say that diagnosis changed my life, it is literally an understatement. My life was forever changed from that day.
Adam: [00:02:27] Wow. So, obviously, that’s really got to kind of hit you like a ton of bricks from left field—that’s mixing metaphors, I apologize. But I mean, how do you deal with that? And what happened next?
Nikia: [00:02:40] I was floored. The doctors wanted to act aggressively. They said because the cancer was so aggressive and I was so young, they wanted to remove both breasts immediately, but that was too much for my mind to comprehend at sixteen. So, I did agree to a partial mastectomy, a summer of treatments, and they said after those treatments, if it looked like they got all the cancer, we could wait on doing anything more aggressively. And thank God, I did undergo a partial removal of the left breast, a summer of treatments, and by the end of that summer, there was no evidence of breast cancer.
Adam: [00:03:23] Wow. That’s got to be about the roughest summer that— I mean, that’s high school, right?
Nikia: [00:03:28] Yeah, I was a sophomore in high school. I think of it in terms of, all my other friends were on their summer breaks and going on vacations, and preparing for prom the next year, and every day I was headed to the hospital. Even with that partial mastectomy, it left me not only physically disfigured, but because I didn’t know about treatment options and reconstructive surgeries, I was emotionally very impacted after that. I used to bottle up gym socks and stuff my bra just to try to keep up the appearance of normality, but it was emotionally life-changing as well.
Adam: [00:04:12] I can’t even imagine as a teenager having to— I mean, it’s hard enough to navigate being a teenager, right? But to navigate it in the context of dealing with breast cancer is just astronomical.
Nikia: [00:04:22] Exactly. Any teenager at sixteen is going through some type of self-esteem issues, identity, you’re just trying to figure out who you are. And the thing is, at sixteen, I couldn’t call up a friend and say, “Hey girl, how’d you get through your cancer?” And at that time, like I said, no family history. I really felt like a monster. There weren’t support groups for sixteen-year-olds with breast cancer at that time; So, it was tough, Adam. To say it was a tough journey, I just can’t overemphasize that enough.
Adam: [00:04:55] Well, I got to say it, knowing the journey that you’ve been through and then seeing the impact that you’re making now as an author, as a speaker is just— Honestly, just an encouraging individual, just talking to you is encouraging. So, I would imagine that at least that aspect of the journey turned a good thing in you, right?
Nikia: [00:05:13] That’s exactly right. So, it made me know that not only was life short and precious, but that I wanted to live and maximize the rest of my life. So, you can ask my mom, my dad; up to that point, I was mediocre in school, just a C student, didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life; but that diagnosis gave me a fuel. It lit a fire under me, literally.
[00:05:42] I began making straight A’s and I ended up graduating with honors. From that point even, became the first person on either side of my family to go to college and graduate, and go on to graduate school, and so many other things. I have tried to use my life ever since that time to just educate young people about their risk of breast cancer, and really try to turn a negative into a positive.
Adam: [00:06:09] That’s right. One of the things that I do want to make sure we talk through while we’re chatting here is that, there is a difference in incidence rates in breast cancer among ethnicities, right?
Nikia: [00:06:18] Oh, yes.
Adam: [00:06:19] So, young women need to be aware that there is at least a possibility, and it needs to be on their radar; but I think certainly, women of different ethnicities need to also be aware. Is that right?
Nikia: [00:06:28] It’s so true. So, for example, white women are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer. They have a higher incidence rate; But African-American women, for example, have a higher mortality rate; meaning that when we are diagnosed, we’re more likely to die from breast cancer. There are many factors, many things that we think may contribute to that outcome, including the fact that we are going to the doctor later, at a later stage; and so, the cancer is more aggressive and your options might be a little less.
[00:07:04] Sometimes it’s cultural beliefs, religious beliefs. You know, we are very spiritual and Christian, and say, “Well, Jesus, will fix it. I’ll pray about it and let him work it out,” rather than coupling our faith sometimes with going to the doctor at the first sign of abnormality. So, there is definitely a higher death rate unfortunately, to breast cancer among African-American women and many other minority groups.
Adam: [00:07:30] That’s right, that’s right. I would imagine it also presents a lot of unique issues that you have to face. And I think you’re probably more unique than most, having had gone through this at age sixteen, also re-dealing with it a little bit now. Can you talk a little bit about some of those unique issues and what that’s like?
Nikia: [00:07:48] Well, first I want to say that for young women, and this is something any woman at any stage of breast cancer needs to be aware of, that the younger you are when you’re diagnosed, the more aggressive the cancer tends to be, and the more likely you are for recurrence. So, it’s not a one and done situation where you say, like the measles, “Oh, I got my measles when I was fifteen, I never have to worry about it again.”
[00:08:18] You forever need to be proactive and aware of your body. And in my case, eighteen years later, I was diagnosed again in the opposite breast with very early onset breast cancer. And a lot of times we hear that once you’re at that five-year mark, you can kind of — and that’s not to be fearful; It’s to be educated and aware that even eighteen years later, we have to be very on guard and proactive with checking up on our bodies. So, that’s one thing, is that young people have a higher recurrence rate, or higher incidence rate to get it a second or a third time.
[00:09:02] Another unique issue for young women could be fertility. So, that’s the age, pre-forties and just your early adult years where you’re thinking of having children and all of that, and many times when we have to get certain types of treatments, there could be factors that affect our fertility. So, there are different kinds of conversations that need to be happening with our doctors along with treating the breast cancer but looking at preserving fertility and things like that. So, the younger you are, the more conversations need to be happening with your doctor.
Adam: [00:09:40] I love something you said in there, you said, “We don’t need to be fearful. We need to be proactive.” I think as someone that has gone through this twice now, you can speak to that much more than someone like I ever could. And yet, I love your attitude. I love how you think about this as like, “Look, I’m going to do the most I can. I’m going to do the most good I can, make the most impact I can. I’m not going to be fearful. I’m going to be proactive and how I live my life, and how I care for my body and how you share your message with the world.”
Nikia: [00:10:10] Adam, that is exactly right. So, for example, at sixteen I felt like life was out of control. Breast cancer was something I’d never heard of; I didn’t know what my options were; I felt like life was happening to me, versus me having any form of control. But by the age of thirty-four, when I was diagnosed again, oh honey, I had done my research. I knew what numbers to call, I knew who to talk to; I was in the driver’s seat.
[00:10:39] And not only that, but what happened is, I had my annual mammograms, and this particular mammogram just had a little suspicious activity. My doctor actually said, “Nikia, don’t worry about it. Let’s just keep an eye on it. Come back next year and don’t be—” His literal words to me were, “Don’t be a hypochondriac. Let’s just keep an eye on it. Let’s check next year.” But I was the one; because I knew how this disease can be aggressive, how it can be non-discriminate. I was the one that was able to champion for myself and say no.
[00:11:19] If there’s even a suspicion of activity of abnormality, let’s test it. Hypochondriac or no, I want to be alive next year to be able to prove you wrong. And because I insisted the doctor with that extra step, had the testing, and sure enough, it was very early onset breast cancer, and I was able to catch it at its earliest stage. And with me finding it so early, I was in the total driver’s seat. I decided my course of action, my options of care were limitless. And it’s not just for me, any woman, the earlier the stage that you’re able to catch it, the more options you have in terms of treatment and how to go about it.
Adam: [00:12:04] That’s right, yeah. You’re actually the second guest that I’ve had that said, “I went to the doctor, the doctor said, ‘This is nothing to worry about. Let’s just keep an eye on it,’” And she had actually gone home and thought about it, thought about it, and it ate away at her until the point where she had to go back and have it tested. She had it tested, sure enough, it’s breast cancer. She caught it early because she was unwilling to just wait and see. And I think there’s a degree that, if you know your body and you can’t get it off your mind, I think there’s some wisdom in that.
Nikia: [00:12:32] That’s exactly right. That is the message that we tell every woman, is, “Know your own girls. Know your own body. Know your own normal.” And at the first sign of abnormality, don’t let somebody talk you out of what you already know. You say, “No. I feel a change. Let’s test it. Let’s look at it.” And you be your own greatest champion.
Adam: [00:12:53] That’s right. I love that. And you mentioned that you were in the driver’s seat, you knew what to look for; you’d done the research, you knew the numbers to call. Walk me through just a little bit of that research. So, where does somebody start? Put yourself back in your sixteen-year-old shoes; you’re completely overwhelmed, you don’t know where to go, what to do. What would you tell your sixteen year-old-self now? Where do you start? Who do you call? What do you do?
Nikia: [00:13:13] I am not just leading you to this website and phone number because I am some paid spokesperson who is trying to promote a cause, but when I tell you that Susan G. Komen has been any valuable lifeline for not only me, but for many women, and the website is simply komen.org, K-O-M-O-N.org.
[00:13:40] It will literally walk the everyday woman through how to find help in their particular area, whether they are insured, uninsured; whatever the problem is, and whatever the stage, there are resources that will point you in the right direction. And thankfully, right after college I was exposed to Susan G. Komen and started working with them to help educate not only young women, but African-American women, and I have now over the past decade, got to work for the organization. And the truth is, they are the world’s largest grassroots organization — breast cancer organization, when it comes to getting into the communities and getting the resources and education to the people who need them most. So, komen.org; literally anything you need to know regarding breast cancer, you can find it.
Adam: [00:14:34] I think the danger there, too, is — Google is not your friend for that. Right?
Nikia: [00:14:39] No. Oh, no.
Adam: [00:14:40] Don’t go down the Google hole. Go to somewhere trusted, go to a trusted source with, with vetted material where you can learn and grow and understand from medical professionals. Right?
Nikia: [00:14:51] Exactly. If you’re having some toe pain, you don’t go to a dentist. You have to go to the specific leading sources and voices in that area of study. So, that’s why I so strongly advocate going there as a first step.
Adam: [00:15:07] That’s right. I think that’s totally spot on. Nikia, this was really fantastic. I just want to ask, as we wrap up here, are there any final thoughts you’d like to share with either women that are starting this journey, or with the loved ones of some of those women?
Nikia: [00:15:21] Yes. A couple key things. Breast cancer is completely indiscriminate. It does not care how old you are. It does not even care about your gender, let alone your ethnicity. Men are diagnosed with breast cancer as well; certainly not as high of a rate, I think the number is about five hundred. Men every year are diagnosed with breast cancer. So, literally, it needs to be a conversation that is had amongst families. And I can’t advocate enough for the fact that even our young people, they’re just never too young to be a part of the conversation. It shouldn’t be the “Shh,”the C-word that no one talks about, because these children today know a whole lot more than we do. They have access to technology and information, and if they know about it, they’re the ones that can encourage their moms and their aunts and their grandmas to get tested.
[00:16:17] So, let’s educate our young people; and as survivors, because the number is one in every eight women will be diagnosed. So even if it doesn’t affect you, chances are someone in your life, in your church, in your community, on your job will be diagnosed. And so, it’s important for you to just learn as much as you can because the likelihood is you’re going to have to be the support system for a survivor at some point or not. So, please, let’s all of us get educated about breast cancer, and not through the eyes of fear, through the eyes of empowerment; because the more we know, the more we can do.
Adam:[00:16:58] That’s right. And if I can take a note from your playbook, it’s when it happens, when it happens to someone like you, become empowered, don’t be fearful, like you said, be proactive and use your time, use a resource, use your energy to be a force for good in the world. Because Nikia, you are an inspiration. You are doing amazing things. I would encourage our listeners to check you out. Where can they connect with you? Are you on Twitter and social media?
Nikia: [00:17:25] Everything. Yeah. My name is Nikia Hammonds-Blakely, nikiahammondsblakely.com. I’m on Facebook and Instagram and all those good things. So please, I’d love for you to connect with me in any way that I can point someone in the right direction of resources. I’m here. I would love to.
Adam: [00:17:42] Oh, Nikia, thanks so much for being on the show. I’d love to have you back again sometime soon. Your energy is amazing. You’re an amazing person. Thank you for all you’re doing.
Nikia: [00:17:51] Thank you, Adam.
Adam: [00:17:58] Thanks for listening to Real Pink, a weekly podcast by Susan G. Komen. For more episodes, visit realpink.komen.org. And for more on breast cancer, visit komen.org. Make sure to check out @SusanGKomen on social media. I’m your host, Adam. You can find me on Twitter @ajwalker or my blog, adamjwalker.com.
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