At 35, Nicole Payne was in the best physical shape of her life. She was even a trainer at the Brooks Family YMCA in Jacksonville.
The married mother of two young children was setting an example.
“I was healthy, active and doing all the ‘right’ things to ensure I was going to stay healthy for a lifetime,” she said.
But in October 2015 she felt a lump in her breast during a self-exam. She had a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy at Baptist Health’s Hill Breast Center in Jacksonville. She was diagnosed with stage three cancer: The lump was a tumor and the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes.
“I was devastated and scared,” she said. “I was in denial … until I saw the imaging and the tumors. It was impossible to deny at that point and I knew I needed to fight.”
Now 40, Payne has finished the fight and become an advocate for the American Cancer Society and the annual First Coast Making Strides Against Breast Cancer fundraising walk. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 version was virtual, with participants walking on their own or with friends and family members or organizing bike rides, car parades or other events.
“Any opportunity to draw attention to breast cancer research, treatment and other detection methods is nothing but a win. So many men and women are impacted by this disease, and the American Cancer Society is doing phenomenal advocacy work,” she said.
This year an estimated 279,100 people in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer, the majority of them women. Nationwide an estimated 42,690 people will die of breast cancer, according to the society.
Coronavirus impacts the numbers.
About 79% of all cancer patients in active treatment report delays in care due to COVID-19. This summer the director of the National Cancer Institute predicted the number of people who will die from breast or colorectal cancer in the United States will increase by nearly 10,000 over the next decade because of delayed screenings, treatments and halted research caused by the pandemic.
“These extraordinary times only amplify the important work of ACS’ mission,” said Kayla Nasr, senior community development manager of the American Cancer Society. “We are excited to bring the community together to support that mission in a new, virtual way to ensure safety across our communities. While the means may have changed, our commitment remains — all of us are Making Strides to end breast cancer.”
Payne has a particular message for the public.
“There’s a middle to treatment. We tend to see the images of diagnosis and then the celebration when they are cancer-free,” she said. “There is a journey in between that is valuable as well. Diagnosis and treatment are not a death sentence and we are so lucky to live in Jacksonville. The medical resources we have in this town are amazing.”
The middle of her fight was chemotherapy, surgery and radiation at Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center. Genetic counseling revealed she was BRCA2-positive, which meant she had a mutation in one of the breast cancer genes and a high risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer. So she later underwent a double mastectomy and radical hysterectomy.
Chemotherapy came first. Surgery followed, then radiation.
“I was able to keep teaching my group exercise classes when I felt well enough,” she said. “I’m so grateful I was able to retain some sense of normalcy in my life. I wasn’t able to disappear because I kept working and stayed connected to a support group.”
Now cancer-free, Payne is fully back at work, teaching classes and “trying to impact as many people as I can through the YMCA.”
“Cancer has made me more compassionate toward anyone going through a difficult time in their life,” she said. “I stop and try to listen to people more, I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. I pursue friendships and connections regardless of the outcome. I don’t let fear stop me … I just go for more things now.”