I’m Nikia Hammonds-Blakely, and this is my story. I was 16 years old, getting ready for school one morning just like any other day. While I was in the shower, I felt a lump. Being that I was just a teenager, I didn’t think anything of it at first, but over time it concerned me enough to bring it to my mother. She scheduled an appointment with a doctor who told me not to worry but decided to investigate it further just to be on the safe side. Not only did the lump turn out to be breast cancer, but it was a very rare and aggressive form. Being a 16-year-old with breast cancer, I had no one to talk to about what this experience would be like for me. To say that it was life-changing is an understatement. They wanted to remove both breasts, but I agreed to have a partial mastectomy, which left me pretty disfigured.
At the time, we didn’t have the best insurance and I didn’t know about all the options that were available to me. I had never heard of an oncologist and I didn’t know about support groups or the resources that could’ve made the journey a little easier. I went through a season where I felt like a physical monster. With the surgery leaving me so disfigured, many days I would ball up gym socks and stuff my bra in hopes finding a balance and feeling normal. Inside I always struggled with my body image and feeling like a “real woman.”
When I looked in the mirror, I wondered if I’d be the kind of woman who would ever get married and have children. Who would love somebody like me in a body like mine? Thankfully, after a summer of treatments, there was no evidence of the disease and I went on to try to maximize the rest of my life and be a voice for other people. I learned all this at 16, so I wanted to educate people that breast cancer knows no age.
Right after college, I learned about Susan G. Komen. They were putting together a national advisory council that wanted to hear from women all across the country who had experienced breast cancer, and aggressive forms of it, at a young age. We looked at every issue from fertility to self-esteem, and we helped the organization communicate with young women at a time when they didn’t feel beautiful. During that time, and as I was a young woman coming into my own, I struggled with self-confidence and feeling my best self. However, there was a store in my hometown of Gary, Indiana that I could always go to and find the right outfit to get my “tszuj.” That store was Ashley Stewart. It was the only store in my city that catered to the urban, curvy woman in a fashionable and edgy way where I didn’t have to dress like my mom.
By the time I was 12, I was a size 12. When I was 14, I was a size 14. And unfortunately, that number kept going up. I’ve been everywhere from a size 12 to a 22. But at every age and at every stage of my life, when I wanted to look my best and put my best foot forward, I walked into Ashley Stewart and they were able to dress me for the most important moments of my life.
When I heard that the organization that I love so much was partnering with a brand that has given me life, I asked, “how can I be a part of this and tell women the power of these two companies?” I’m so excited that Susan G. Komen has locked arms with Ashley Stewart in an effort to create a world without breast cancer because I believe the divas represented in this sisterhood have a whole lot of fight.
While 16 is young to be diagnosed with breast cancer, the truth is that African-American women are 40% more likely to die from this disease than their Caucasian counterparts. The younger we are, the more aggressive this cancer tends to be. That means that more than anything, we have to be proactive about our own health and knowing our own normal. At the first sign of any abnormality, we must talk to somebody because we have a very high mortality rate.
We believe we can end that through early detection and treatment. I think the high mortality rate that we’ve been experiencing in the African-American community is not because we’re lazy or uneducated – many times, it’s because we’re so busy caring for everyone in our village that we don’t take care of ourselves.
I believe wholeheartedly in what these companies have joined together to do and that’s why I wanted to share the message with you on these four things you can do TODAY to take charge of your breast health.
- Know your risk.
- Talk to both sides of your family to learn about your health history.
- Talk to a doctor about your risk of breast cancer.
- Get screened!
- Talk to your doctor about which screening tests are right for you if you are at higher risk.
- Have a mammogram every year starting at age 40 if you are at average risk.
- Have a clinical breast exam at least every 3 years starting at age 20, and every year starting at age 40.
- Sign up for a screening reminder at komen.org/reminder.
- Know what is normal for YOU. See a doctor if you notice any of these breast changes:
- Lump, hard knot or thickening inside breast or underarm area
- Swelling, warmth, redness or darkening of the breast
- Change in size or shape of the breast
- Dimpling or puckering of the skin
- Itchy, scaly sore or rash on the nipple
- Pulling in of your nipple or other parts of the breast
- Nipple discharge that stars suddenly
- New pain in one spot that doesn’t go away
- Make healthy lifestyle choices.
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Add exercise into your routine.
- Limit alcohol intake.
- Limit menopausal hormone use.
- Breastfeed, if you can.
As part of Susan G. Komen and Ashley Stewart’s partnership, Ashley Stewart has taken it a step further and starting in May, 100% of sales from these gorgeous lunch totes will be donated to Susan G. Komen, while supplies last. Buying a tote will mean that you are taking part in this sisterhood and having a direct impact on our vision to create a world without breast cancer.
I am so excited to see what these two powerhouse organizations can accomplish through this partnership, and I am grateful to be part of this journey. Remember, you are worthy of taking charge of your own health. You are a true diva and true divas fight. I encourage you to share these tips for how you can take charge of your breast health with loved ones. Let’s do this hand-in-hand because we are stronger together.