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Nia’s Story: Expect the Unexpected

Nia Gilliam was a busy single mom working as a pilot and ambassador for Black women in flying when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her diagnosis took her on a nearly two-year journey of multiple surgeries that made her realize when it comes to breast cancer, you should expect the unexpected. This is her story in her own words.

The journey of ups-and-downs I would experience after my breast cancer diagnosis is something I never could have imagined. I was prepared for the mastectomy to be the most difficult part, but that surgery was just the beginning of a rollercoaster that lasted for almost two years.

I’ve always been super cognizant of my breast health. My aunt passed away from breast cancer, and I knew the importance of getting regular screenings once I turned 40.

In 2021, I volunteered as director of two community outreach events for the Sisters of the Skies, a nonprofit organization I cofounded dedicated to supporting future Black aviators. With those obligations, my work schedule and the busy holiday season, I got extremely busy and forgot to schedule my appointment. While attending a scholarship gala for Sisters of the Skies, a speaker challenged the room to schedule their mammograms.

Making the appointment moved to the top of my to-do list, as I had been experiencing some throbbing pain in my breast that I chalked up to scar tissue from a breast reduction I’d had several years earlier. When I went in for my mammogram in April, I was told I needed additional tests. The area of concern was in the same area as the scar tissue from the breast reduction, and I honestly felt that everything would come back clean. I moved forward with the biopsy the following month and never expected the text I would receive from my doctor in June.

I was in Phoenix speaking at a United event. My doctor texted, asking if I would be able to meet with her for a virtual appointment that afternoon to discuss my results. At that point, I knew. My mind went to the worst place. Clearly, I had cancer.

The call confirmed my fear. I immediately thought, “Oh my God, I’m dying.” My daughter was only 11, and all I could think about was her. In the weeks after the call, I met with a few different doctors to weigh in on my treatment options. I had a variety of options: lumpectomy, single mastectomy or bilateral mastectomy. I opted for the bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction. It was the most aggressive treatment, but it was the best choice for me.

My surgery was in August and the pathology report came back showing no evidence of disease. I was so relieved and began the process of healing and preparing for the reconstruction. One morning in October I woke up to a sweat-like liquid leaking from my left breast. I went to the emergency room, where I learned that one of the tissue expanders had caused an infection. They had to remove the expander. Then, less than a month later, the leaking started on the right breast. Once again, there was an infection from the expander. I left the hospital flat.

For the first time since my mastectomy, it really sunk in that I had gone through cancer. My breasts were gone. I had to amputate part of myself to live. I started to question whether I made the right decision. I went through a dark time, not knowing if my body could manage the tissue expanders again. I was 46 and divorced, and as a single woman, my confidence was at an all-time low. I came out of the funk and decided to allow myself to heal and try again.

I had surgery to add tissue expanders in April 2023, and I spent the next two weeks in bed. I was going to do everything in my power to heal properly. My reconstruction was at the end of June, and I was cleared to exercise at the end of July. I registered to participate in the Komen 3-Day in Chicago in September 2023, and that gave me just a month to train. I couldn’t complete the entire 60 miles, but I walked the final mile on the third day and had an amazing experience.

I’m still in the recovery process – I’m moving around, but I do get tired easily – and haven’t been able to return to flying, but I am scheduled to be back in the air in the spring.

After all the surgeries and all the tears, I’ve come out on the other side stronger than ever.

Statements and opinions expressed are those of the individual and do not express the views or opinions of Susan G. Komen. This information is being provided for educational purposes only and is not to be construed as medical advice. Persons with breast cancer should consult their healthcare provider with specific questions or concerns about their treatment.