Photo by Beyond Photography
When a lump appeared in her left breast, Rhodesia Assad didn’t think much of it.
Too much caffeine could be the culprit, her mother suggested, and vitamin E might help. The Gulfport native, who now lives in Florida and works for the U.S. Postal Service, was due for an annual mammogram — which would prove far from routine.
“The radiologist told me they saw some funny-looking images in my lymph nodes and within the lump I felt,” Assad recalls of the test last May. “She wanted me to schedule an appointment soon.”
Within days, Assad had a verbal diagnosis, and biopsy results confirmed the finding: stage 2B breast cancer.
“I never thought this would ever happen to me,” she says. “I’d had a mammogram the year before, and nothing.”
Questions flooded her mind: Was she going to die? What would she do about bills? Why was this happening to her? As a divorced mom to 13-year-old Skai, how and when should she tell her daughter?
“I knew that whatever I had to face, I had to be strong for Skai,” Assad says. “I had to fight this thing headfirst.”
Friends and family rallied around her with calls, visits, messages and other support. Her mom, Joan Collins, works at the VA in Biloxi and took a month of leave to help — receiving donations and other aid from her coworkers. Assad’s boyfriend, Reggie Maddox, has “been there through it all,” she says, and pitched in wherever needed — from making appointments to picking up Skai from school.
When Assad came home in October for the Biloxi breast cancer walk, friends and classmates from Gulfport High School’s Class of 94 turned the event into their 25th class reunion. Deon Barnett, a friend of Assad’s since the late 1990s, even shaved her head in solidarity.
Barnett’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012, and Assad was there “every step of the way,” her friend recalls. When Barnett avoided her annual mammogram out of fear, Assad pushed her to get it done.
“Here I am, the one with the (family) history, but this time her mammogram is the one that would be unexpected,” Barnett says. “Lord, she would be the last person expected to have breast cancer; I was sick!”
After Assad lost her hair, Barnett vowed to show her she wasn’t alone. She recorded her own extreme haircut and sent the video to her friend.
“I’ll forever be grateful for the opportunity to walk with her throughout anything that life has to offer,” Barnett says.
To date, Assad has completed 10 rounds of chemo, with eight more remaining, and recently finished 20 rounds of radiation. When she had a double mastectomy in November, she says there were no signs of cancer, and of the eight lymph nodes removed, two were precancerous.
“I am truly blessed,” she says, “and truly believe that I was healed from God, not the chemo.”
Assad recently returned to work after nearly two months without pay, and although loved ones have been generous, it hasn’t been enough to cover her expenses. When she undergoes reconstruction, she will be out of work again without any paid leave.
Her friend, Shermaine Reynolds, launched a GoFundMe page for Assad, which has raised $320 toward its $5,000 goal. Donors can contribute via Cash App ($RhodesiaAssad) or GoFundMe gf.me/u/ wfkbgh (Expenses for Rhodesia Assad Fight 4 Cancer)
OK TO BE SCARED
After treatment and reconstruction, Assad plans to start a nonprofit to assist patients, families and caregivers with the challenges of fighting this illness. Everyone affected by cancer faces a different journey, she says, but overall, she wants others to know its no longer a death sentence.
Her other words of advice: “Please don’t stress” — and surround yourself with caring, supportive people. If you don’t feel satisfied or comfortable with your medical team, she adds — drawing from her own experience — seek another opinion and change facilities if necessary.
Assad admits to having been scared at times, but she’s learned that being afraid is OK.
“Having had cancer definitely has given me strength I never knew I had,” she says. “I have a different outlook on life and don’t sweat the small stuff.”