Two battles, one survivor: Nykia McKenzie’s struggle for breast cancer treatment

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By Jennipher Vasquez

Nykia McKenzie initially experienced two of the nine most common signs of breast cancer in June 2019 and immediately visited a doctor. McKenzie was brushed off and given antibiotics for a cyst.

Following ten days of antibiotics, she noticed no change in her symptoms and eventually returned to see a doctor in November 2019 where she was told that it was, yet again, a cyst.

Nearly nine months later, McKenzie, 27, was diagnosed with breast cancer April 4, 2020. She was being treated for cysts that entire time.  

“You can put it in the box of a horror story,” McKenzie said. “It is well known that Black and brown women are the least to be heard or listened to when it comes to their health and their bodies.”

“In March of 2020, at this point it was unbearable, my breast grew to the size of a mini watermelon. I went to a doctor immediately and they referred me to the third recommendation to get the answer of what was going on and that’s when she pretty much told me what I already knew.”

After the diagnosis, McKenzie went through eight rounds of chemotherapy, 25 rounds of radiation and underwent a mastectomy to completely remove her breast tissue. This was followed by physical therapy and frequent visits to the doctor. 

“In April when I was diagnosed, the doctor told me very verbatim, ‘I’m very glad that you came in when you did’ because it was growing into stage three,” McKenzie said. “From June 2019 to March of 2020, by that time it grew into stage two.” 

McKenzie said her journey would have been completely different if she would have had a mammogram done, or had simply been listened to in 2019 when she first visited a doctor. 

She advises women to keep fighting to be heard — even if doctor visits become costly.

“Keep going to a doctor until you are heard,” McKenzie said. “Keep track of the doctors that said ‘no’ so that way you can advocate to other people in your community or in your area so that the same won’t happen to them.”

She added that everyone should advocate and stand up for themselves even though it is taught that a doctor’s judgment should be trusted. 

“Nobody knows your body better than you because we’re the ones living in it,” McKenzie said. “If you feel like something is wrong, keep going until somebody is able to sit down and listen to you and not just write you off as a number.” 

She said the physical aspect of being a breast cancer patient was bearable in comparison to the mental toll it took on her. 

“You can’t prepare for breaking down in the middle of grocery shopping because it crosses your mind,” she said. “You can’t prepare for staring at the walls in the middle of the night, sobbing, because this is now your new life.” 

Affirmations, prayers and journaling were key components to maintaining her mental health. She told herself from the beginning, upon diagnosis, that she is a survivor. 

“We are going to get through this because this is bigger than me,” she said when recounting her affirmations. “God wouldn’t give me this without a purpose behind it, a lesson behind it, so I am going to fight the best way I know how.”

McKenzie said that being mentally strong is key to getting through the physical aspect of any circumstance, especially after being in remission and cancer free for over a year. She added that it’s a process in itself adjusting to a “new normal” and it is a never ending journey in many ways. 

“Living life to the fullest,” McKenzie said. “Do what you like to do, do what you want to do and make sure you live life to all capabilities and aspects of your happiness.” 

Her experience has inspired her to advocate for Black and brown women — especially those under age 40 — to ensure they are heard, know how to self-examine and when to seek medical attention. 

“I’m trying to advocate for women that are cancer survivors and how we can have a sense of normalcy,” McKenzie said. 

To accomplish her goal — McKenzie is a makeup artist, and was featured in Rihanna’s 2020 breast cancer awareness campaign about a month after being declared cancer free —  she is working on furthering her career by receiving an esthetician license so she can provide microblading services to those suffering from hair loss due to any medical condition.

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