Photographer Angelica Edwards met Keyla "Nunny" Reece when she took an assignment to cover a story about hospital parking fees for her student newspaper at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In 2015, Reece, of Hope Mills, N.C., felt a lump in her breast, got it checked out and was told it was a benign cyst. Two years later, she felt an additional lump, this time under her armpit, while simultaneously experiencing skin blotches and extreme back pain.
In June 2017, doctors diagnosed Reece with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. It had spread to her ribs, lungs, spine and pelvis.
After the initial photo assignment, Edwards contacted Reece to see if she would allow her to document her journey.
Reece was excited to share her story. She said she wanted her son, Ryan, who was 10 years old at the time, to be able to look back and understand what his mother went through as he got older and she was no longer here.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. As the month ends, we take an intimate look at Reece's breast cancer journey through pictures.
Treatment options for cancer are limited in Hope Mills. Nunny Reece must be driven to Chapel Hill or Durham to get CT scans, chemotherapy, blood drawn, radiation and more. Depending on traffic, the drive can take 2-4 hours. "It's not just for older women anymore," Reece said. "Most everybody I know now that have breast cancer is my age ... especially in the Black community."
Nunny Reece, 42, grasps the hands of her aunt, Tina Foster (left), and a group of her "prayer warriors" at her home in Hope Mills, N.C., shortly after conveying the news that she has weeks, or possibly months to live because of the progression of her stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. Without God, "the depression, the sadness, the pain ... all of that would have took over by now," Reece said.
Nunny Reece lays back during chemotherapy while her husband, Scott, waits at the N.C. Cancer Hospital. When Nunny and Scott were informed by a doctor about her diagnosis, "the first thing Scott asked was, is she gonna die," Nunny said. "And, you know, he sat there and cried and I sat there and cried, and you have these two young people and this doctor sitting there with tears in her eyes."
In 2000, the Reeces married in a courthouse and promised to renew their vows. Two decades and three kids later, Scott proposed to Nunny at her 40th birthday party, after her stage 4 cancer diagnosis. "People when they know they're gonna die, they have like a, what they call a bucket list," Nunny said. "And I have what I call is a live-love-life list because I still continue to live."
Nunny Reece picks out her wedding dress with her bridesmaids. Reece felt relieved to find her perfect dress because of concerns of swelling as a result of her steroid treatment. "As soon as I put it on, my eyes lit up," Nunny said. "And I just knew that dress was for me ... and it was really, really beautiful."
Nunny Reece celebrates with her sister, Tauneka Roundtree Dolloson (left), best friends Tedra Harris (right) and Jessica Clark (far right) at Nunny's bridal shower. The trio helps Scott take care of Nunny by keeping her company and taking her to appointments when he cannot.
Nunny Reece spent the night with her best friends in a hotel where they ate food, laughed and prepared for her big day. "Them are the two that you know will stay with me in the hospital, call on a weekly basis to see how I'm doing," Reece said. "Having that girl time ... it's good to have that."
Nunny Reece waits to be seen at the UNC Hospitals Hillsborough Campus in Hillsborough, N.C. "Treatment haven't really been that good," Nunny said. "The longest I've been stable for is six months."
Nunny Reece wanted to celebrate Thanksgiving and Ryan's 10th birthday at the beach to create memories and spend quality time with her loved ones. "A lot of people don't get to know ... how they're going to die and they don't get to say goodbye to their family," Nunny said. "At least I know to put in that time with my family, so that way they can remember not taking anything for granted."
Nunny Reece gets dressed shortly before renewing her vows. "I was able to have ... the wedding of my dream," Nunny said. "It was better than what I thought. I mean my dress, the decoration, everything was purple like I love."
Nunny and Scott Reece celebrate after renewing their vows on Feb. 8, 2020, fulfilling Nunny's dream of having a big wedding. "I just wanted to remind him ... that I take my vows seriously, too. I think he wanted to show me that he's not just my caregiver," Nunny said.
Nunny Reece hugs her son Ryan after renewing her vows. "That little boy, he just makes it known that he is all about his mom. And he loves his mom. He needs me here. And he wants me here."
Nunny Reece entered in-home hospice care after running out of treatment options and relies on her husband to help her dress, bathe and get up. "You really can't prepare for the worst," Nunny said. "Nobody wants to change from being the active mom to the mom who can barely move. Who can't go to baseball games anymore. [Who sometimes has to] get around in a wheelchair at her doctor's office."
Nunny Reece, 42, falls asleep while in at-home hospice care in her home in Hope Mills, N.C. Nunny struggles with staying awake, speaking and moving about as her cancer has progressed significantly. COVID-19 protocols have resulted in her receiving very few visitors during her hospice care.
Nunny Reece's oldest sons, Tylan (left) and Tavon (right) pay their respects to their mother. Nunny died on Feb. 1, 2021 — nine days before her 43rd birthday. Her funeral service embodied what she loved: God, her family and the color purple. The home-going service was preplanned. Nunny picked out the worship songs, speakers and decorations she wanted before she died.
Scott and Nunny Reece shared two decades, three kids and a life together. Before her death, Nunny prewrote letters to her husband and children, which included advice for major life events such as graduation and raising their future children. For Scott, she wished him to "move forward with life and to be able to enjoy life ... because he has spent so much time taking care of me."
Angelica Edwards is a photographer based in Chapel Hill, N.C. Follow her on Instagram @angelica_edwards2
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