[00:00:00] Adam Walker: 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.
This is Real Pink, a new podcast series where we’re going to break down the stigmas and feelings of embarrassment and talk openly and honestly about just how difficult breast cancer can be, from diagnosis to treatment, to living with metastatic breast cancer, to life after treatment ends. In today’s episode, you’ll hear from two women whose lives have been changed by breast cancer and the ways they’re soaring to new heights as black women.
Donna Dennis is a former track and field star and known as one of the greatest female sprinters in the nation. She qualified as an alternate for the 1984 Olympics in the 200. Donna was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017 at the age of 53. Donna didn’t know black women could get breast cancer because she didn’t know anyone who had it and she never saw women who looked like her at the cancer center where she was getting chemotherapy.
Donna’s diagnosis has inspired her to speak to young black female athletes and educate them on their health. As an athlete, her body was always different and she didn’t know much about her breast health.
Nia Gilliam is a pilot for United Airlines and ambassador for black women in flying. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in June of 2022 and opted for a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction. Both expanders in her breast leaked and caused infections, which meant additional surgeries for Nia. She was able to have new tissue expanders added and completed reconstruction surgery in November of 2023. But due to all the complications and a traumatic recovery, she has not yet returned to the air.
Nia is an avid advocate for black women in aviation and started a nonprofit to encourage more young black women to pursue careers in flying. Nia and Donna, thank you for being here today and for sharing more about where life is taking you after being diagnosed with breast cancer. So Nia, let’s start with you.
Tell us about how you’ve managed your diagnosis and recovery and how you’re supporting black women in aviation. And then Donna, once she’s done, we’d love to hear about your diagnosis and your work with female athletes.
[00:02:28] Nia Gilliam: Thank you so much, Adam. I’m really happy to be here and share my story. Let me just give you a quick briefing of my life before breast cancer, before I start talking about after breast cancer, right?
People find it very exciting to know that I’m a pilot and it’s something that I’ve wanted to do since I was 10. I never saw a black woman pilot. There’s no one in my family that flies. So it was just uncharted territory. When I was 17, I actually ditched school in high school to go to a funeral to meet my mentor.
She was the 1st black woman pilot I’ve ever met. She happened to fly for United Airlines at the time and became my mentor. Let’s fast forward. Went through all my training college, became a professional pilot with the airlines and this is in 2016, I’m flying internationally on a Boeing 787 aircraft and got a message on Facebook from another young lady who was interested in flying, she flew for the military. Her name is Angel Hughes and she wanted to transition to the airlines. So Angel and I had a conversation and talked about how few or underrepresented black women are in professional flight decks. And from that conversation, we started an organization called Sisters of the Skies.
Talk about underrepresentation, there’s like less than 1 percent of black women are professional pilots. So through this organization, we have scholarships that we give to young people and older women who are interested in having careers as pilots and we also have outreach programs where we teach young girls about aviation.
So in December of 2021, I was due for my mammogram, which I always get a mammogram every year. But this month I was hosting an event for the organization Sister of the Skies and just got really busy, life gets busy, right? So I missed my mammogram appointment. The following year in 2023, I was like, “oh, let me go ahead and get my mammogram because I missed it.”
It was in the mammogram that they found an area of concern, which is what they said and need to do further, an ultrasound. Went from there to, “hey, we need to get a biopsy done.” I received a message June 7th on my dad’s birthday that I had cancer and I’m sure it was devastating. You don’t want to hear those words because immediately I’m not gonna lie Donna, I thought I was like, “it’s okay, am I dying here?” I don’t know how you felt when you heard that, but that’s immediately what I thought and my daughter with time was 11, it was very devastating and traumatic just to hear that. I did research, found a wonderful breast surgeon and decided to get a double mastectomy.
I had lobular cancer of the left breast. It was a difficult choice, but it was the best choice for me, a double mastectomy. My troubles came after the cancer was removed and with the reconstruction portion. Like Adam mentioned, I ended up having infections in both my breasts with the tissue expanders, so I had 2 emergency surgeries.
From August, I had a surgery and another surgery in October 2022, then another one in November 2022. Into the next year because I had to heal from that, and I’m getting another plastic surgeon and started all over again and had three more surgeries. My last one being in November, but here I am just healing from 16 months of surgeries and recovering.
And that’s been my journey. I’m so grateful for the support system that I’ve had. I don’t know, Donna, how managing the emotional toll that the diagnosis and being a survivor has put on you, but for me, it was a lot of journaling, a community of support. So that’s my story. And I really want to hear yours, Donna.
[00:06:40] Donna Dennis: I got diagnosed at the age of 53. It was July of 2017. The funny thing is as an athlete, of course, as I always say, that was a hundred years ago, right now I’m in my fifties, but I still work out, I keep in shape, all of that and I like to sleep in an athletic bra. I don’t do it all the time, but I like that feeling of support.
And one night I had on my athletic bra and I went to position myself in a minute, meaning position, my rest in it and when I did it, I felt the lump. And right then and there, I just started crying because everything you hear was breast cancer. I never thought, “will I get breast cancer?”
I thought, when will I get it? Because why would I be any different from anybody else? So when I felt that lump, at that time, I knew I had breast cancer. And it would be on a Friday, so I had to wait the whole weekend until Monday. And I called my doctor, told her that I felt the lump. She had me come straight in.
And then she felt it, and from there she knew that I needed to go get an ultrasound, something had to be done. And so she found me a place to go, and I got there and everybody was concerned, and then they wanted me to do a biopsy. And so the biopsy came. Now, afterwards I was getting dressed and when I came out of it, all the doctors and the nurses, they all were lined up to wish me well.
And to me, that was a sign of them telling me more likely I have breast cancer. Now of course they couldn’t say anything to me until the results of the biopsy came. But I’m like, I think they know by the feel and all of that, but as they’re lining up wishing me well, I was like, “okay, I have breast cancer.”
And so I I just waited for the results. And my doctor did call me in a couple of days later to let me know that it came out that I had breast cancer. The hardest part for me was telling my sons. I have two sons. At the time, one was a senior in high school, the other one was a sophomore, and I didn’t want my son’s senior year to be about his mother having breast cancer.
Not to mention, it was his birthday weekend, and I wasn’t going to dare tell him anything to ruin his birthday weekend. But I did tell my family. And so they were like, when you tell the boys, do you want us to be with you? And I felt like this is something that I needed to do by myself because I would have family meetings, and they’d be like, “oh, I hear mama go to one of her family meetings.” And so I needed to sit down with them myself. And I did that Monday, and as I’m telling them to see their faces and it was really hard. So I want to say the hardest thing for me was telling my sons. that their mother had breast cancer, but we survived it and we got through it.
[00:09:59] Nia Gilliam: Donna, what type of cancer did you have?
[00:10:05] Donna Dennis: I had the lobular cancer. I had a tumor. It was a lymphectomy that I needed. Okay. Now, as we know, Everyone thinks, breast cancer is all the same. Breast cancer is not the same. At all. I needed a lumpectomy because I had a little tumor on the right side of my breast. But, I had to have, I did chemo. Then surgery and radiation. But here’s something that most people, I don’t think they realize is that, and I’m going to ask you this question. Do you know that the size of your breast can and will determine your treatment?
[00:10:51] Nia Gilliam: I did not know that.
[00:10:53] Donna Dennis: Because for me, if I had larger breasts, they could have just went in and took out the tumor and that would have been that. But like my surgeon said “When I go to take this you don’t have any breast tissue to give me, I’m going to probably take half of your breast.” But if my breast was larger, I could give her breast tissue.
And so that’s why I had to go through chemo to shrink it. And my body took well to chemo. And that could be because of me being an athlete, but my mind didn’t do so well with it, it got me mentally. And so she goes, “I’m going to have to shrink it and then go in and clean up that area where the tumor was setting. And then to do that, I’m going to take some of your breast tissue.” So a lot of people don’t know that the size of your breast can and will determine what your treatment could be.
[00:11:56] Nia Gilliam: I saw three different surgeons. I was interviewing them, asking them questions and seeing if they were a good fit for me.
And my first doctor, she only gave me an option of a lumpectomy. And, I was prepared for that. It was going to be lumpectomy and then the radiation. the second doctor, she was the one who said you can get a single mastectomy or bilateral or a lumpectomy. I didn’t know that I had those options.
And so when I saw my third doctor, she also gave me the three options, but the reason I chose her is she prayed. I’ve never had a doctor pray just in a consultation when it was over. She just prayed with me and for me. And I just thought that was moving that she really felt, I felt like she was really feeling what I was going through.
And I chose her and then I had the double mastectomy so that I didn’t have to do the radiation. And because it wasn’t in my lymph nodes, I did not have to go through chemo. And I’ll be honest with you, Donna, like I had some emotions of feeling like, “okay, I’m doing something pretty invasive here.” Taking both my breasts when I had a choice. I know some women don’t have a choice, right? But I did. I’m like, “am I making the right choice?” I went back and forth. But when the pathology reports came back after the surgery, she told me that, in my case, my right side was high risk to develop it later.
So she said, “you made a good decision.” But to your point about everybody’s cancer is different. There is no cancer that is duplicated. That’s facts. So when people make a decision, you do what’s best for you and your body, and you don’t compare to anybody’s situation. How did you cope with, you said chemo because again, I didn’t have to do chemo, but how did you cope with it mentally?
Did you journal? Did how did you go through that?
[00:14:00] Donna Dennis: No, I did not journal. Journals were given to me, but I could not write. I just couldn’t get my mind to. For me, what I did, chemo was very scary for me. But the first treatment I did, then after that it started hitting me. So what I had to do is what I call my toolbox.
I had to open up my toolbox and go and remember who I was as an athlete and what I did to get through my training, what I did to get to the level that I got to. And the joke, don’t read your headlines. Girl, I was finding articles about me.
I had to remember who I was. I was reading my articles. I had to think, you know what? I remember after these workouts, my body was killing me. And of course, it wasn’t my bones that was hurting, but in my mind, I was like, “you just did it. Good workout girl. And so you’re going to be fine with it.” And so that’s how I got through it. One of the hardest things was I didn’t want my sons to see me started looking ill. You know what I’m like? I just get emotional talking about it. I didn’t want, as far as my hair, I got the jump on it. I went to my son’s barber and say, “Hey, let’s cut my hair off.” Because I wasn’t gonna wake up and see hair on my pillow. And so their barber went ahead and we shaved it pretty low. And, but once I lost my eyebrows, to me, it was like, “wow, I am an official cancer patient, if you will.” just not having eyebrows, something about that really bothered me. The no hair, “hey, I’ll throw on some makeup and get moving,” but the no eyebrows really did it for me.
[00:15:55] Nia Gilliam: You know what Donna, I completely relate to that moment of, “wow, I’m a cancer patient.”
My moment came when I had lost both of my tissue expanders and I was flat because initially with my double mastectomy they had put in tissue expanders and put a little bit of the fluid in them so when I left the hospital I might have been an A cup maybe when I left the hospital. But when I had the emergency surgeries I was completely flat and that was very hard to look at.
That’s the moment for me when I felt, “wow, this is cancer. This is what it’ll do.” And in that moment, too, I’m like, I can’t imagine having that having to go through chemo, losing hair, losing eyebrows. People don’t understand. This is emotionally devastating and much like you. I love what you said.
You have to remember who you are. Remember who you are. That’s I had a moment where I was like, “okay, this may be me for the rest of my life.” Because if I go through the surgery again and my body doesn’t take to the tissue expanders, I’m not doing this anymore. I’m alive. I’m just going to have to live bold and breastless.
And I had that moment of, yeah, I remember who you are. You’re more than this. Live this.
[00:17:15] Donna Dennis: Yes, for sure. Yeah. You have to remember who you are. And so that’s why I definitely want women to understand mammograms save lives. You have to get your mammogram. They do save your life because early detection is very important.
Early detection will save your lives. I know sometimes, we black women, a women period, we feel like we have to take care of our families. I was a single mother, so I have to take care of my sons and we put ourselves In the back burner, but I’ve always gotten my mammograms.
I’ve always gotten them. And when I felt that lump in July, I was due for my mammogram in August, but you have to take care of yourself. I feel like this happened to me for a reason. And this reason is for me to go. Speak to everybody.
Look, please get your mammograms. And as I am getting chemo now- I’m a woman of the world. I understand that all women get breast cancer. It’s not just black women, but it was nobody in there black, but me. And I’m looking around what is this? No, I’m back when they get breast cancer, but why am I the only one here? And from my time from September to December, I was the only black person in there. And I’m like, this is crazy.
[00:18:49] Nia Gilliam: Why do you think that was the case? Do you think that maybe in our community?
[00:18:54] Donna Dennis: I don’t know because I’ve talked to other women. Maybe they just wasn’t there the day I was there. We was just on opposite days, but I have had women say, I don’t have insurance. And the thing is I didn’t pay for my chemo. There are foundations that will pay for your chemo. people, there’s foundations that will pay for your chemo. They will pay for your treatments.
[00:19:18] Nia Gilliam: Yeah, one thing that my doctor did, my breast surgeon, she gave me a lot of information for resources. And one organization that’s here, Oakland, Houston, Angel Surviving Cancer, it just happens to be a most African American board.
She’s actually on the board. My doctor, who’s not a black woman, but she’s such an advocate for just women and getting them healthy. But I did feel a sense of connection just as she recognized that representation matters, right? But she said, “here’s this information and oh, by the way, I really think you should reach out to this organization.” And, she told me it’s mostly black women in this organization, but I think it would be a good resource for you to go to for help and community. And I appreciate that. Representation matters, whether it’s having to go through cancer, whether it’s being an athlete, an Olympian, maybe, even being a pilot, it’s just being able to connect with people who have similar experiences. That’s all, and it’s okay.
[00:20:31] Donna Dennis: And even as an athlete, what I want these young girls to understand is, when you become an athlete, you start learning your body, you start learning when your hamstring is sore, when you have shin splints, when you’re quad, you learn that girls can pull a groin muscle.
Know your body, continue that even well after, you plan out, you being an athlete, whether or not you don’t play basketball, pass high school or whatever. Know your body, know your breasts, know when something is different. Because, I met a girl that was 27 that had breast cancer.
So this happening, this cancer thing is happening younger. So just know your body and be proactive for yourself. And my surgical team, oh my God, I had the best team. My surgeon, she was an Indian woman. And she told me, she goes, “I’m going to introduce you to your whole team. If there’s anybody you’re not comfortable with, you let me know and we will change it.” My oncologist was an Indian woman, she’s a fiesty little thing. And my radiologist was this older white gentleman. I’m telling you, they took care of me like nobody’s business. I went through Texas oncology and they took care of me like nobody’s business. My surgeon, after my surgery, she said to me, “Oh my God, you had such a beautiful muscle. I love your breast muscle.” I said, “I guess all the pushups I’ve done, pushups and all of that.” So she goes, “I will make all my patients do pushups. That was such a beautiful muscle to work on.” And I’m looking like, is she really saying this to me? But it was so cute. Yeah, it was so cute. And I just had an awesome team. They took care of me. But I have a question for you, though. This question is very important. As a pilot, you’re at 35,000 feet, 40, 000 feet. How is that going to work with your reconstruction with your body?
[00:22:36] Nia Gilliam: That is a good question. First, let me start off with this industry that I’m in, being a pilot. This profession is very unique, right?
Once I had my diagnosis of cancer, I was immediately grounded because as a pilot, you’re required to hold and possess an FAA medical. If anything happens to you, be cancer related or a list of health issues, it can invalidate your medical. So if your medical is no longer valid, you can no longer fly. So just that vast in that one moment, my whole life did change. Not only do I have cancer, but now I’m not going to be able to work.
[00:23:26] Donna Dennis: So, your job literally was affected.
[00:23:29] Nia Gilliam: Yes, just like that. And if I don’t get better, I don’t get to work again, this is what I’ve wanted to do since I was a child. And I accomplished my goals, my dreams. And now it could all be over.
God has other plans, the cancer’s gone. So I can get my job back. But it’s a process. Yay! once it was removed, I then had to submit all of my records, all my lab work, like everything to the FAA. They then do all their assessment, reading through everything. And then they turn around and issue a special issuance medical.
And all that means is every year when I go to get my flight physical, because normally you just go get your flight physical and your pass and you go to work, right? But with a special issuance, you have to get first go to your breast surgeon or your oncologist, whoever you’re under at that time, get the okay from them that your health is still good, there’s no reoccurrence.
[00:24:34] Donna Dennis: So have you known any other pilot that had gone through this female period?
[00:24:38] Nia Gilliam: I did actually, and they were very helpful in this process, especially getting my medical back. So that was a blessing because I was trying and navigate this, not knowing how this works. Every year for 5 years, I have to 1st go see my breast surgeon who has to see me anyway every 6 months get the okay that I’m good and healthy and bring that documentation to my aviation medical examiner. And then they see that and they’re okay, then they can continue with the other flight physical, and then I get my medical. So I have to do that for 5 years.
I’ll be back at work hopefully around April timeframe. And then, like I said, yeah, everything will be back to normal. I’ll just be operating just under the special issuance. And they just make sure that you’re constantly, consciously aware of your health and wellness. That’s five years.
I’ll go back to normal. Yeah. So that’s the- some women, they can go through chemo and they can go back. They can go to work the next day or if they’re feeling good, but we can’t do that. We can’t go through chemo. We can’t, it’s a lot of rules that are followed. So it definitely affects this profession.
[00:25:54] Donna Dennis: I can’t imagine. I can’t imagine.
[00:25:59] Adam Walker: Ladies, I really appreciate all that you shared. I just have one question I want to make sure we cover before we’re done here. It’s easy to get lost after a life altering experience. You’ve both been through, what advice do you have for someone that’s listening who’s currently experiencing a life change because of breast cancer and does not know what the future holds for them?
[00:26:26] Donna Dennis: Always think positive and don’t lose yourself. Know who you are. Like I said, if you were this bad athlete, know that. If you were this piano playing, you be this piano playing, you remember who that person was, if you beat everybody in chess, you go back and you beat everybody in chess, always think positive and know that you do not walk alone in this. You got a sister that you don’t even know that is supporting you and praying for you.
[00:27:03] Nia Gilliam: I’m going to echo what Donna says, you really have to stay positive. There’s days where you’re not going to meet in those days. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your community, your family, your friends, your loved ones.
They want to embrace you and no matter what, it’s going to be okay and you’ve just got to stay positive. I journaled and I also just a quick, I guess a plug. I did the Susan G Komen three days, 60 mile walk. And I’ve met so many other survivors and people who did actually lose some loved ones, but just rallying around other people with like experiences or unlike, but just are very compassionate and understanding. It helps you don’t have to do this alone and please don’t even try. Don’t.
[00:27:52] Adam Walker: Well ladies, I’m very inspired by how driven and accomplished you both are. Really appreciate, all that you’re doing for yourselves, for your community and for just joining us on the show today, such an honor.
[00:28:07] Donna Dennis: Thank you so much. Thank you.
[00:28:09] Nia Gilliam: Thank you so much for having us.
[00:28:14] Adam Walker: Thanks for listening to Real Pink, a weekly podcast by Susan G Komen. For more episodes, visit realpink.komen.org. For more on breast cancer, visit Komen.org. Make sure to check out @Susan G Komen on social media. I’m your host, Adam. You can find me on Twitter @AJWalker or on my blog, AdamJWalker.com.