The Dallas Examiner
Nikia Hammonds-Blakely has been fighting like a champion her whole life. At 41 years old, she is a two-time, 25-year breast cancer survivor.
A motivational speaker and gospel singer, Hammonds-Blakely’s goal is to educate young African American women to take control of their breast health and overall health management as a spokesperson for the Know Your Girls campaign.
The KnowYourGirls.org campaign is a breast cancer awareness movement led by the Susan G. Komen Foundation, which educates Black women to take charge of their breast health with early detection and screenings.
According to the foundation, which teamed up with the ad council and the campaign, Black women in the U.S. are about 40% more likely to die from breast cancer than White women. Also, Black women are diagnosed at a younger age and at later stages and with more aggressive forms of the disease. Also, Black women are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer under the age of 45 than White women.
Hammonds-Blakely also educates Black women about breast cancer awareness through her breast cancer foundation, CHAMPION Promise Foundation.
“I started the foundation because I have a long history of breast cancer,” Hammonds-Blakely said. “I was originally diagnosed when I was only 16 years old. I was a sophomore in high school, and my entire life I had to be proactive and maintain my breast health. It lends itself to my overall health. My weight and diabetes have been things that I struggled with my entire life. So we wanted to start a foundation to help young women take control of their health as young as possible and to let them know what options are out there if they are ever faced with a giant such as breast cancer.”
She regularly speaks at church settings, youth groups, women organizations and nonprofits to educate women primarily about breast cancer, and that you are never too young to know your body or start with a detection process.
Hammonds-Blakely also had the opportunity to support young women in Africa, ages 13 and 14, who were battling stage 4 breast cancer. She was able to help support young, underprivileged African patients with almost $1,000 worth of bras, prosthetics and medical supplies. With the help of her community, she raised over $115,000 to support the Princess Nikky Breast Cancer Foundation in Abuja, Africa.
She is an advocate and ambassador for women’s breast health.
“The media campaign, Know Your Girls, helps women to start a conversation with their doctors for the very first time,” she said.
She vividly remembers the day she first detected that something was off with her body.
“I found out one morning when I was in the shower getting ready for school, not trying to do a breast self-exam, but simply taking a shower. While I was in the shower, I felt a lump big enough to be a concern for me,” she said. “I mentioned it to my mother who then scheduled a visit with the doctor as part of a routine physical. I went to the doctor and at the end of physical she did a breast exam and she felt the lump. At first, she shoved it off and said don’t be too concerned because you are young and girls your age are just forming breasts and they tend to be lumpy and bumpy. But, at the end of the visit she decided to be on the safe side and get it tested.”
After scheduling a biopsy, not only did the lump turn out to be breast cancer, but it was a very rare and aggressive form of breast cancer.
“The original recommendation was to have an aggressive treatment and complete removal of both breasts,” Hammonds-Blakely said. “But as you can imagine, with me being just a teenager, that was really hard to take, and while I knew it would require me to act aggressively and require surgery, I am a woman of faith and I knew that I wanted to couple my prayer with my treatment. Ultimately I agreed to have a partial mastectomy of the left breast along with a summer treatment. They said that if my radiation treatment looked good by the end of summer, then I could avoid chemotherapy treatment.”
By the end of the summer, there was no hint of the disease.
The primary issues she faced when she was young were self-esteem issues and body image issues.
“I always struggled with my weight, but the surgery left me pretty disfigured, and I did not have the best of insurance, and I did not have the greatest in doctors,” she reflected. “I did not know what to ask doctors, and I did not know what I was lacking or missing. It is a part of why I am so passionate about educating women about what resources are out there, because people who are underinsured or who have no insurance don’t get the same treatment or same treatment options that other people get.”
“I had a very botched surgery and I didn’t know about prosthetics or bras or reconstructive surgeries that could of made my journey a little easier.”
She said she really struggled with the disfigurement and having to use gym socks to stuff her bra to make it look even.
“The treatments itself, the radiation was pretty harsh on my body. The way they angled the radiation, my vocal chords took a direct hit, and they told me I would have lifelong problems, bronchial issues as a singer. I would have recurrent hoarseness.”
Despite the struggles, Hammonds-Blakely said this fueled her desire to live.
“I tell you that the breast cancer diagnosis and treatment fueled my will to live because the journey was so rough that I really realized that life is short and it has to be maximized,” she said. “It ended up being one of my greatest blessings up to that point.“
Hammonds-Blakely went from being a C student to making all A’s in school.
“Just facing death and a disease that big, I just wanted me to live and at that point I become an A student, and from that diagnosis to my senior year, I ended up graduating at the top of my class with A’s and with honors and became the first person in my family to go to college. That was all as a result of the fire that was lit under me as a result of the diagnosis.”
However, Hammonds-Blakely would have to battle again and champion herself once more. At age 34, 18 years after she was first diagnosed, the cancer returned in the opposite breast.
“After having annual mammograms, the doctors saw suspicious activity in the opposite breast and doctors said don’t overreact,” she said. “I had to be my own advocate because by this point I was 34 and learned enough that you don’t just sit on it and just wait. I was high risk and had to advocate for my own health care. The doctor told me that I was just being a hypochondriac, but it was in fact very early onset breast cancer.”
She caught the breast cancer at a very early stage and decided to have a double mastectomy, the removal of both breasts and reconstruction.
“I knew that I was high risk, but this time I was in the driver’s seat,” she said.
Her message to young women is to know your body and if something is off or not normal, you need to speak up or discuss it with someone such as a family member or doctor.
“You just think that breast cancer is just an old White woman’s disease, but I just want to tell that woman that you are not alone. More younger women are being diagnosed with breast cancer and the younger you are, the more aggressive the disease tends to be, so know that you are not alone and know that there are so many resources out there and know that so many women are surviving breast cancer. Like never before, those women that detect and are able to treat their breast cancer early are now having a 95% survival rate.”
She said she knows of girls who are only 12 or 13 years old who have breast cancer.
“That shows me that no matter how bad you think your situation is, there is always somebody somewhere that is worse off,” she said. “To any woman, you are not alone. There is a village of women out there who are walking these steps and there are so many resources to help you get through these journeys.”
Hammonds-Blakely stresses the importance of knowing your body.
“Know your normal, because breast cancer just doesn’t appear in the form of lumps. For some people it can be a rash, or for some it could have been an inversion of the nipple or a discharge, and if you find any abnormality, do not be afraid to speak up and talk to somebody,” she said. “Telling someone is huge because many women, especially with African American women, we can be guilty of taking care of the whole village and leaving ourselves to the back burner and keep going and that we just don’t take time to stop and address it. Tell a doctor or somebody because chances are you can save your life down the road.”
Hammonds-Blakely said that although there are not any direct causes of breast cancer, risk factors include getting older, genetic predisposition toward the disease, extra fat on the body and drinking.
She said she is most thankful for life and health, and on Oct. 12 she will be celebrating her 25-year cancerversary with a special celebration at the Potter’s House in North Dallas.
“Had I waited until I was 40, I would not be alive today because the cancer was so aggressive and I was so young.” she said. “I am most thankful for a second chance, and I pray and I try to give my life everyday to talk to other women and ensure they that they don’t have to have the same mortality rate.”
She recently accepted a job as a program manager with the Susan G. Komen Foundation in Dallas.
“Early detection is the best protection with a 95% survival rate,” Hammonds-Blakely said. “The earlier you find it, the more treatment options you have and the greater chance you can beat it. I am an example of what happens when you detect early.”
Hammonds-Blakely said one needs to be proactive and not put it off.
“By age 40, incorporate annual mammograms. However, our message is breast cancer is ageless, so you should know your normal, know your changes in your breast,” she said. “There is no age that is too young to do a breast exam. Sometimes you have to go that extra mile and champion yourself.”