Posted Oct. 1, 2008 – It was Nikia Hammonds-Blakely’s most shocking experience.
At age 16, as she was preparing for school, she felt a lump in her breast.
“Internally, I shrugged it off as if it were nothing. I didn’t think anything of it and went on to school,” says Hammonds-Blakey, now 30. “I didn’t even tell my mom. At this point there was no reason for me to suspect anything was wrong. I had no family history of breast cancer. I wasn’t overly concerned because breast cancer was just not anything in my vocabulary.”
That was until two weeks later when she went for a routine physical and her doctor told her and her mom that the lump in her breast was cause for concern, and large enough that they should get more tests.
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“I saw the concern on my mother’s face. And, with the doctor’s reaction, I began to feel a tremendous amount of fear,” says the gospel singer, motivational speaker and student. “The doctor even struggled with whether or not to pursue treatment because she felt I was just a young girl, developing rapidly and the lump could be any number of things.”
After getting the biopsy that her doctor assured her was “just a precaution,” Hammonds-Blakey learned that not only was the lump cancerous, but that she was suffering from one of the more aggressive forms of the disease.
“I was in shock,” she recalls. “I heard the words but it was like, ‘Wonk, wonk, wah, wonk, wonk, wonk.’ I was absolutely devastated. It took literally weeks to grasp what she had just told me.”
Breast cancer at such a young age is rare, but not unheard of, experts say. It is no more common for Blacks than for other racial groups, says Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society. However, because of poor screenings, treatment and the fact that breast cancer in Black women is usually caught after the disease has progressed – and, therefore, presents limited treatment options – Black women with breast cancer tend to die sooner from the disease.
Hammonds-Blakey, however, is a survivor.
Although her breast cancer was caught before it could spread elsewhere, she still was a 16-year-old who, with her mother, had to maneuver through the course of treatments presented to them with little counseling and the implications their decisions could have on Hammonds-Blakey's life.
Self Esteem already was a problem
Even at 16, Hammonds-Blakey was determined to take charge of her future, despite having no support group to turn to and limited information from her doctors about options for reshaping her breasts after surgery.
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When doctors recommended that she have a double mastectomy in which both of her breasts would be removed to prevent further spread of the cancer, Hammonds-Blakey, after doing some homework, decided with her mom to "go one step aat a time," get the first breast treated and then see what she needed to do next .
“We got a second opinion and third opinion, and sent the test results off to the Mayo Clinic,” she says.
A Risky Decision Pays Off
It was a risky decision, she admits, particularly since she had fibrous breasts, which could mask additional growths. Because she had the more aggressive form of breast cancer, there also was a chance that she would continue to grow other lumps throughout her life.
But, the prospect of dealing with a double mastectomy at age 16 was a bombshell to the already fragile self-esteem she had as a teen battling weight and self-image issues.
“I was a sophomore and already battling with my self-esteem. I was just a big girl,” she says. “It was just a horrible combination of things I was dealing with. Would I ever get a date? Would anyone take me to the junior prom with no breasts? It was too much thrown at me at once.”
Her partial mastectomy and chemo treatment made her “feel like an alien” at times, Hammonds-Blakey recalls. While she thought she would endure the most severe scrutiny from her classmates, it was the adults around her who were most unkind, she says.
Once, while at church, a woman kept pointing to her and repeatedly mouthing that she needed to fix her lopsided breast – one the size of a cantaloupe and the other the size of a plum, she says. She finally rushed to the bathroom and cried, comforted by her mother who rushed in behind her.
Falling apart in front of her family, however, was just not allowed. Even at her weakest moments, she said, she felt that if she showed strength in front of her family, they would be strengthened by her resolve.
But there were times when her resolve was tested. At a family gathering, she just broke down in private, crying because everyone was being nice – but she knew they were worried.
“I just laid out on the floor and started crying,” she says. “I just couldn’t hide it any more. I know this has affected millions of women, but I said, ‘God, I really need you to come through for me.’ From that prayer, I felt strength that got me through that experience.”
Since then, Hammonds-Blakey says, she was glad that she did not go through the double mastectomy. She’s had a few scares – growths that were examined but turned out to be benign.
A singer, who is on the verge of releasing her first gospel album, Hammonds-Blakey says she’s been able to live her life on her own terms without fear. Hammonds-Blakey, a spokespeson for the Susan G. Koman for The Cure Circle of Promise campaign, has also gotten married and begun to pursue doctoral studies in counseling.
But she’s glad that her mother and doctors had the foresight to insist that she follow up with the diagnostic process that found her cancer. Had she not, she says, she might not be around today.