Breast Cancer Survivor Nikita Lyons Smith Shares Her Story of Hope and Support
by RYAN MILEJCZAK
photo by JESSICA McDONALD
Nikita Lyons Smith has a story that would inspire anyone. She boasts many accomplishments over her 20-year pharmacy career, including opening Winter Haven’s Mercy Pharmacy and becoming Winter Haven’s first African-American female independent pharmacy owner. But of all her accomplishments, perhaps the most inspiring is the 48-year-old’s story as a cancer survivor.
It all began around Christmas of 2011. For many, this is a time of excitement, joy, and cheer. But for Smith, it was when she received her breast cancer diagnosis.
Smith, then 36, first became concerned when she felt a lump during a routine self exam. She decided to ask her gynecologist to take a look and had a biopsy done.
Smith was fortunate enough to catch her breast cancer in the early stages. She elected to do a double mastectomy and hysterectomy, forgoing chemo or radiation treatment. She went in for surgery just weeks later in January of 2012, and the surgery was a success.
As a part of her treatment with Dr. Olga Ivanov at what is now AdventHealth Celebration, Smith also received counseling, saw a nutritionist, took up a workout regimen, and even started doing acupuncture, all of which she says helped her a lot during her treatment.
In fact, this wasn’t Smith’s first battle with cancer, either. In 1997, when she was in her 20s and studying at Florida A&M University, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. At the time, she was one of only three women her age in the nation to receive this diagnosis. While she’s grateful for the treatment she received from Dr. William Roberts at Lakeland Regional Health, she wishes she would have had the benefits of counseling during that time and had been better medically informed about topics like preserving fertility.
Of course, it was more than just counseling and acupuncture that got Smith through her treatment. It was also the support she received from her friends, family, and community. Together, these make up what Smith calls her “village.”
Some of the people who played the most important role in helping her through this time were members of her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha. Sisters Geraldine Watson, a fellow cancer survivor, brought Smith flowers from her garden; Shandra Blocker brought her everyday supplies like toilet paper and paper towels, and Seretha Tinsley paid for a maid to clean her house.
Family was key for Smith as well during this difficult time. Family like her husband, Timothy Smith, who would write down her questions before doctor’s appointments, and be sure to ask them if Smith forgot or became overwhelmed; her cousin, April Wiggins, a nurse, who changed her dressings and answered questions she forgot to ask her physician; her aunt, Bessie Henderson, who would drive her to doctor’s appointments and take her nephew to school; and her mom, Mary Brokenburr, who took FMLA leave from her job up in Georgia to stay with Smith.
The church is also a key part of Smith’s life, and her pastor, Ronnie L. Clark, was also a big help. He prayed for her, and came to the hospital the morning of her surgery to support her. Fellow members at Hurst Chapel AME and First Missionary Baptist Church in Winter Haven also prayed for her and provided their support.
“Don’t do it alone,” she says of dealing with cancer recovery, continuing “try to have your village, whether that’s your pastor, your church, your parents, your siblings, your friends, or family. That’s very important.”
With the ample support she received from her village, Smith was able to make it through the surgery and her recovery and finally received the news that she was cancer free. But, her journey didn’t end there, and there were still many things to adjust to, like the breast implants she got after her double mastectomy.
“The process of getting breast implants was definitely different; they don’t look the same as someone with breasts who’s getting implants” she explains, continuing, “looking at how your body is post mastectomy versus who you’ve grown up as before breast cancer, it doesn’t look the same. That’s a constant mental toughness you have to overcome.”
Besides this, Smith also still struggles with chronic fatigue, which can make navigating the workplace a challenge. And like with many cancer survivors, intimacy with her partner was also a concern, although Smith was lucky enough to have a partner who was ready to support her through thick and thin.
“One of the things my psychologist told me was there’s a 50% chance someone who was there before your diagnosis is still there after. At the time, my husband and I were engaged and I tried to break up with him, but he wasn’t having it!” Smith says with a laugh.
“I know it was difficult for us, but I think it’s in my head more so than his when it comes to intimacy.”
When asked about advice she has for others battling with cancer, Smith had this to say: “Advocate for yourself. If you get diagnosed and you’re not satisfied or don’t feel comfortable with your doctor, seek a second opinion. And if you feel like you can’t do it or don’t have a voice, then maybe your village can help you.”
These days, Smith continues her work as a pharmacist with local free clinics and a Certified Diabetes Educator with Novo Nordisk. She hopes to one day start a nonprofit for those battling with cancer, especially those without a village of their own, to be an advocate for cancer patients and support them through treatment.