“I feel great.” I’m living my best life.” “Breast cancer doesn’t run in my family.” “I am physically fit.” I’m too young.” Patricia Riley, founder and CFO (Chief Fighting Officer) of Fight or Fight Harder, knows these words far too well. Without divine intervention, these very words could have cost Patricia her life. Now, she shares intimate details of her fight with breast cancer and her compelling testimony of survival and faith in action.
How Was Your Life Before and Leading Up to Breast Cancer?
Life was great. I was living my best life. I felt healthy. I was in the best shape of my adult life; I would even say since high school. I was traveling, having fun, and living life. In February 2018, about a month after my 41st birthday, I felt a lump on my breast and decided to pay a visit to my OB/GYN. After getting checked out, my doctor assured me that I had nothing to worry about because I was relatively young. She said the lump I felt was just dense breast tissue. However, as a precautionary measure, she ordered a mammogram. I thought to myself, ‘breast cancer doesn’t run in my family’ so getting a mammogram was the furthest thing from my mind. I continued living my best life and did not schedule the mammogram.
That summer, in July, I kept getting sick. I felt hot and feverish inside. It felt like I had a heart attack, or least what I thought a heart attack felt like. I went to three different emergency rooms, and no one could tell me anything other than I had anxiety. Anxiety? Okay, I was experiencing a great amount of stress at my job, so my doctor placed me on a leave of absence. In September, the sickness continued while on a much-needed girls’ trip to Belize. The turning point for me, though, was the week of Thanksgiving. The Tuesday before the holiday, I finally had the mammogram done.
On Thanksgiving morning, I became very ill to the point that my mom called 911. When we arrived at the hospital, I told them that I was not leaving until someone told me what was going on. They ran tests. Still found nothing. They simply told me to continue taking my anxiety medicine, and I would be fine. The Friday after Thanksgiving, I received a call concerning the results of my mammogram. They saw something and asked me to come in for an ultrasound. That following Monday, I had my ultrasound, and the radiologist said to us [myself, my mom, and sister], ‘we’ll need to do a biopsy to determine if it’s cancer.’ I literally went deaf after hearing the word cancer. I immediately thought, ‘Cancer? So, it’s truly a possibility that I, who is only 41, could have cancer? No, this couldn’t be.’ Still, in unbelief, I disregarded it but still had the prayer warriors praying. Biopsy appointment scheduled. A biopsy is done. Now we wait but pray while we wait.”
How Did You Respond/Handle the Diagnosis?
‘We found cancerous tumors in your breast in two different places,’ Patricia recalls the doctor saying to her over the phone in an upbeat yet non-emphatic tone. All I heard was, ‘you have breast cancer.’ I dropped the phone, yelling and screaming as I fell to my knees. My mom was trying to hold back the tears but couldn’t any longer.” On December 10, 2018, I was diagnosed with Her2+ breast cancer that had advanced to Her2+ Metastatic breast cancer, which means cancer had spread to another place.
Patricia Riley shares four “F-words” that impacted her fight: Faith, Finances, Family/Friends, and Foundation and provided a glimpse of what and how she dealt with each.
My faith was indeed tested throughout this entire journey. Upon receiving the diagnosis, my initial thoughts were all over the place: ‘I’m 41 years old, and this is how I’m going to die. This is the end for me. What is my mom going to do? How are my brothers and sisters going to handle me dying? I’m the youngest of five.’ I was angry with God at that time. I felt like He had left me. I felt like He had not heard mine or even my intercessor’s prayers. I could not understand why God would allow this to happen to me. My mind kept racing: ‘Why would He do this to my mom? This is going to kill her. I am not going back to church. What is the point? All this serving I’ve done, giving to the church, tithing, and offering, what was it all for?’
Literally. One. Hour. Later. I rebuked all of that. This was not the time for me to turn my back on God. I needed to run towards Him. I needed to be closer to Him than I ever had before. I had a long talk with God. He said to me, ‘You’re already healed; I’m just using you. What you are going to do is share everything that you are going through. This is not about you. This is about My glory. I will be with you all the way.’ I was like, ‘okay, that’s all I needed to hear.’”
Chemotherapy treatment began two days after my 42nd birthday, on January 13, 2019. I underwent five months and six rounds of aggressive chemotherapy. “I tried my best to be as uplifted as I could, reflecting on what God had told me: ‘You are already healed.’ One of the things I remember my oncologist telling me was, ‘we’re going to do our job, we’re going to allow the chemo to do its job, and what we need you to do is remain positive.’ I immediately told my family and extended family what was going on and promised them that everything would be okay.
What other struggles did you face while going through treatment?
I decided that I no longer wanted to go to my current hospital, so I sought a second opinion and continued treatments at Northwestern Hospital. Between December 2018 (just two days after receiving diagnosis) and July 2019, not only was I dealing with aggressive chemotherapy treatments, but my finances were under major attack. I was on a leave-of-absence, but my former employer prematurely stopped my short-term disability. I eventually ended up losing my job, which meant the loss of medical benefits. As if the diagnosis wasn’t enough, I was now struggling to keep a roof over my head and wondering how I would continue treatments, which were $16,000 each, and again, I needed six. I applied for financial assistance through Northwestern’s financial counseling department. This was a month-long process. My employer offered me Cobra insurance, which was a whopping $736 per month. Unemployment kicked in by January 2019, but of course, it was not enough to cover my medical and living expenses. To add insult to injury, my home was in foreclosure, and I was in court due to missed bankruptcy payments. I believed that God would show up. I honestly did not have the strength to worry or cry; my position was: if it’s God’s will for me to lose my house, I know that He has something better, and I would have to do it. It was just too much for me to carry, so I surrendered it to God.
In early February 2019, my sister started a GoFundMe campaign for me. I’ll admit that I initially told her absolutely not. It was my pride. I had to be now vulnerable and let people know that I needed help. I was used to being independent, handling my own, and taking care of myself. But God spoke to me and said, ‘you have poured into so many people, now it’s your receiving season.’ My financial situation was shifting. In mid-February, thanks to family, friends, and my wonderful church, over $10,000 was raised by way of GoFundMe. I must express how instrumental my church, Fellowship Chicago, was for me financially, physically, and spiritually. Yes, things were turning around. I appeared back in bankruptcy court (in less than the month that I asked them to give me) with the spirit of Oprah Winfrey, ‘you get a check, you get a check, and you get a check.’ In March 2019, Northwestern’s financial counseling department approved my hardship application. They told me they would take care of whatever COBRA or Medicaid did not cover. On July 16, 2019, while I was undergoing a mastectomy and partial reconstructive surgery, unbeknownst to me, a check was being delivered to my mailbox for back-pay that my former employer owed me for prematurely stopping my short-term disability – A 5-FIGURE check! God worked it all out. There is no way I could have written this story, gotten the glory, or worked any of this out myself. God had his hands all over me and this situation. All I could say was and is to God be the glory!
What valuable lessons did you learn about family and friends?
Those who I thought would be there with me during that time in my life walked right out of the door. No words, they just disappeared. To this day, they have not called to say, ‘how are you? Did you make it out? Are you still alive?’ Friends who I considered family, who were close to my mom and my sister, never called to check up on me. It was hurtful. But at the same time, with me being in the fight of my life, I couldn’t spend my time and energy trying to figure out or wonder who was and wasn’t there and why. I had God, my mom, and my sister, and that was enough for me.” But the God that I serve, when He subtracts, He also adds and multiplies. I have met so many amazing people on this journey who have wrapped their arms around me and supported me in ways that I couldn’t have ever imagined.
What Inspired You to Start a Foundation?
My foundation, Fight or Fight Harder, was developed through a conversation with my sister-in-law, Lisa. Before I began chemotherapy to treat breast cancer, she called me and said, “I’m just hearing the news, and I’m torn apart. I can’t stop crying, and I don’t understand why this has happened to you. But the one thing I know is we need you here; we need you to fight.” My response to her was, “Lisa, I only have two choices: to fight or fight harder.” At that time, I didn’t even realize that was the seed God was planting for me to do something bigger. The inspiration for my foundation started during my treatments. My mom, sister, and many others were always there for me. But I noticed so many women who didn’t have the same support system as I did. It tore my heart apart. Some days, I would just cry, knowing that these women were going through this journey alone. I shared with my sister that God placed it on my heart to turn my pain into purpose and that I wanted to launch a breast cancer foundation. When my sister asked me the name, I responded with a smile, “Fight or Fight Harder.” My main goal is to support women fighting this disease. No one should have to fight this fight alone. My vision is to eradicate breast cancer one fighter at a time. I use this platform to speak to organizations about the remedies of resilience, patience, perspective, and a positive, also known as the three Ps of coping with whatever fight you’re in.
What message do you want to drive home to women?
To women currently battling cancer: Breast cancer is not a death sentence. Fight, and when you’re feeling too weak to fight, fight harder! To women who make tons of excuses like I did initially: It’s imperative to check on your girls. Early detection saves lives! Forget what you heard about a mammogram; chemotherapy is worse!
Patricia Riley hopes to draw awareness to her Fight or Fight Harder Foundation and share her story through social media and speaking engagements, currently available for booking. To donate to her foundation and/or book Patricia, please contact her through her website, https://fightorfightharder.org/. Patricia Riley also shared exclusively with the Chicago Defender that she is currently working on her book, scheduled to release in 2021. Follow Fight or Fight Harder Foundation on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, @fofhfoundation.
Kim Durden is a food blogger and owner of Divine Dine Food Tours, the first and only entirely Black, woman-owned food tour agency in Chicago. Visit her website at https://www.divinedine.online/ and follow her on social media: Facebook @divinedinefoodietours | Instagram @divinedinefoodietours | Twitter @divinedinetours