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Penn State Alumna Turns Cancer Diagnosis Into Newfound Passion

Penn State alumna Nikki Williams is many things. She’s a mother, wife, supervisor, fitness influencer, author, business owner. On top of all this, she’s battling stage two breast cancer.

Williams’ journey is a winding one. When the Pittsburgh native was ready to attend college, she had her eye set on Penn State the moment she heard of THON. She spent her first year attending Penn State Behrend and two years at Fayette. In 2011, she transferred to University Park for the rest of her college career.

Once she started at University Park, she met her then-boyfriend, Andrew, in their English class. Six years later, they said their vows and married. Not only did Williams find her husband at Penn State, but her love for helping kids throughout their cancer battle.

Courtesy of Nikki Williams

“One of the main reasons I picked Penn State was to participate in THON,” Williams said. “My cousin had pediatric cancer and beat it. [Because of THON], I made up my mind to go to Penn State. No doubt.”

After participating in two THONs at Fayette, she was overwhelmed with the support she witnessed at University Park’s 46 hours. Because of THON’s events and impacts, Williams created her own fundraiser in honor of fighting pediatric cancer.

“Since 2017, I’ve hosted a ‘Help Kids Beat Cancer!’ fundraiser where 100% of the proceeds are donated to the Four Diamonds Fund,” Williams said. “When I first discovered we could do a third-party fundraiser for THON, I decided that following September it was our time to host a fundraiser.”

Williams reached out to local Pittsburgh businesses, plus the Penguins, Steelers, and Pirates. There was a great turnout, and the event received monetary donations, auction baskets, and a signed photo of Antonio Brown donated by the Steelers.

The fundraiser is held at her local church and features an auction, bake sale, concession stand, games, prizes, and more.

“I wanted to bring the Family Carnival back [to Pittsburgh]. There is no fee. We just want you to bring your kids, have fun, and fight against pediatric cancer,” Williams said. “This is the first year I had to cancel because I am still going through radiation. It is always hosted in September because it is Pediatric Cancer Awareness Month.”

Williams is undergoing radiation treatment for breast cancer. She never shared her cancer story while promoting “Help Kids Beat Cancer!” because her focus is on helping kids, not her own battle with breast cancer.

“There are kids that need to do [chemotherapy and radiation]. There are kids who get through this. You mean to tell me I am going to sit here and feel sorry for myself?” Williams said. “These kids are superheroes.”

As Williams says, her cancer diagnosis is “where the fun begins.”

In February 2020, Williams discovered she was pregnant but miscarried a few days after finding out. Two weeks after she miscarried, she discovered a lump on her breast but thought she pulled a muscle because of her continuous exercise. A month later, the lump was still there.

To Williams, this was not a good sign. Growing up, she had watched her mother and multiple aunts of hers fight and beat breast cancer. Williams was also aware that she had BRCA+, the gene that triggers breast and ovarian cancer. At the age of 29, she had started annual precautionary mammograms and MRIs. Because she was young and kept up with her check-ins, her doctors did not question her lump and assumed it was a cyst.

Fast forward to May 2020, Williams and her husband successfully got pregnant and scheduled their first pregnancy ultrasound appointment. She grew more frustrated when the lump was still painful, and her OB-GYN was not worried about its presence.

Because both doctors were not concerned, she decided to dive deeper from her own intuition. On Monday, September 28, 2020, Williams had an appointment to check out the “cyst” on her breast. While 21 weeks pregnant, she had an ultrasound and biopsy on the lump in her breast, only to find out it was an aggressive tumor.

“Once we started the ultrasound on my breast, I already knew what it was,” Williams said. “They told me we were going to do the biopsy that day, and I just said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ I was more worried about the surgery and going under than the actual cancer diagnosis.”

The following Monday was the first doctor’s appointment. Tuesday was the ultrasound and biopsy. Wednesday was a diagnosis, and Thursday was a gender reveal. By Friday, Nikki was in surgery while pregnant with their son, Asher.

“I handled the diagnosis so well because I watched my mom go through it 13 years before I did. I knew the steps of treatment already, so I took her inspiration to beat it,” Williams said.

Williams did not bat an eye once she was diagnosed. Her determination and motivation came from her son, husband, and family.

“After surgery, we learned she had stage two breast cancer. Thankfully, and luckily, it didn’t spread to her lymph nodes,” Andrew Williams said. “We also learned that the cancer type was a triple-negative, so no hormones contributed to it. The surgeon and oncologist both agreed that it was a miracle it hadn’t spread.”

Williams had her first four treatments of cancer while pregnant with Asher. After coming home from a day of treatment, Williams wanted to be in control of what happened next to her hair. She made the decision to donate her lengthy, colored hair to Wigs For Kids.

“She loved her hair, and instead of waiting for it to fall out naturally, she decided to help make a difference so other kids fighting cancer could feel beautiful,” her husband said.

She gave birth to a very healthy Asher, became a mother, and continued her cancer treatments until April 23, 2021.

For precaution, William’s surgeon ordered the MRI, mammogram, and ultrasound for the left breast since she was going to wait until after radiation to have her other side removed. Upon doing these tests, they found micro-calcifications in her breast. After a biopsy was performed, it was determined she had ductal carcinoma, a precursor to cancer.

Instead of starting radiation, Williams had her breasts removed while simultaneously having a hysterectomy to hopefully avoid a recurrence of cancer. It’s been two months since Williams’ surgery, and she has since undergone radiation. As of today, she has only a handful of radiation treatments left and is back to working out in the gym.

“After the surgery, all of the tests came back clear. I refuse to say I am cancer-free until I hit that five-year mark!” Williams said. “But as far as everything goes, the cancer was removed after the surgeries.”

All while fighting cancer and raising a child, she used fitness and optimism as an escape.

“Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to inspire people. It was always through fitness,” Williams said. “I wanted everyone to know that if I could still work out, you could do it, too.”

Williams explained that becoming a fitness influencer, especially while diagnosed with cancer, was about sharing both the good and the bad.

“Influencers only post what they want you to see. They don’t post the bad days. They don’t post what it took to get to this point of their life,” Williams said.

While sitting in her chemo cubicle, Williams would work out during her treatments. After her dual surgery on June 11, 2021, she was able to get back to her home workouts and daily social media posts. Williams shared her story on Youtube and Instagram.

Williams has produced a self-help book titled, “Getting to A Healthy, Happy Place,” her personal clothing brand, and her own curated workout sets for followers to use. She is currently preparing a memoir based on her journal entries during her pregnancy and cancer treatments.

This October, Williams will be a speaker at Monongahela Valley Hospital’s annual Breast Cancer Awareness Convention.

“The audience is going to hear some of the same information over and over. I want to be the person who is like, ‘What’s up, guys! This is my story and this is what happened!’ with a smile on my face.” Williams said.

Others in the audience deserve the positivity that Williams will offer on stage. Williams vows to take her online presence and charisma everywhere she goes. As Williams says, “They are just boobs!”

“My biggest goal within this next year is to stay cancer-free,” Williams said. “At the end of the day, think of the kind of person you want to be remembered as. Who do you want to be?”

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About the Author

Larkin Richards

Larkin is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism. The only words that leave her mouth are "yinz" and "dippy eggs." Luckily, her writing has much more substance than that. As a Steelers and Pirates fan, sports can become a hot debate. Share your thoughts on dogs (specifically Boston Terriers) with her at: [email protected]

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