When Chicago native Nicole Bullock first noticed that she wasn’t feeling like her normal self in the summer of 2016, she wasn’t initially worried. She simply attributed it to the normal wear and tear of being a wife and mother of three who was active in her community. But the symptoms weren’t just normal fatigue. It was extreme tiredness, in addition to weight loss, night sweats and “a sensation that something was constantly stuck in my throat,” she tells ESSENCE. When she attempted to take a step back from some commitments and take care of herself, things only got worse.
“The fatigue intensified and I began quickly losing a significant amount of weight although I could no longer work out,” she says. “But it was the uncomfortable feeling in my throat that prompted me to contact my doctor.”
Directed to the ER when her primary care physician was unavailable, doctors initially thought she just had acid reflux and gave her medication to deal with it. A second opinion would yield the same answers and same outcome: the discomfort continued. She finally saw her primary care physician in September 2016, who ordered her to undergo a CT scan as her throat pain turned into difficulty breathing while attempting to sleep. What was found was a mass the size of an eggplant in her chest. When it was tested, she soon was diagnosed with Stage 2b mediastinal diffuse large B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
“I went from acid reflux to blood cancer, and it took three doctors and me advocating for myself to get the correct diagnosis,” she says.
She would undergo treatment over the course of a year. It included a blend of eight rounds of in-patient intravenous chemotherapy, four rounds of intrathecal chemotherapy and 17 rounds of radiation to get her declared as having No Evidence of Disease (NED). Something integral in that treatment plan was blood transfusions.
“Most people get chemo for a few hours and go home. However, because the cancer was so aggressive doctors treated it as such, which left my body depleted of red blood cells and platelets,” she says, noting that she would be hospitalized for five consecutive days for each cycle of chemotherapy. “When red blood cells are low it impairs the body’s ability to deliver oxygen from the lungs to other organs leading to fatigue and shortness of breath. Having low platelets can cause severe bleeding issues and prevent blood from clotting properly. The transfusions built my blood supply back up and ensured I would not experience any hemorrhaging during treatment.”
When Bullock learned that there was no presence of the disease in her body after her intense treatment, she created a foundation. Nicole Cares helps bring awareness of this form of cancer to the Black community as well as support to those battling it. Knowing the role that the availability of blood and platelets had on the outcome of her situation, Bullock holds an annual blood drive in Chicago to ensure people in a position she once found herself in won’t go without.
“Hosting blood drives is our way of paying it forward, ensuring others have blood available when needed,” she says. “For me personally, I share my journey to give God the glory for healing my body and give others hope.”
She also aims to give hope through her foundation’s programs, like Hope to Hospitals, where volunteers visit patients, offering them prayer and dropping off care packages. There’s also “The Aftermath” support group for survivors of all forms of cancer to help one another navigate life after cancer and to share the challenges of survivorship. In addition to that, she created a coloring book during the pandemic, If I Be Lifted Up, while thinking about cancer patients who weren’t allowed visitors. She quickly realized that it could benefit many others generally isolated due to Covid.
“I learned that patients were battling cancer alone. No visitors were allowed. My heart immediately went out to them because I remembered how important it was for me to have visits from my family and friends while I was hospitalized. I asked God to give me something to help people, and he gave me the idea for If I Be Lifted Up,” she says, adding that the book, sold on Amazon and with a portion of proceeds going to Nicole Cares, is filled with intricate designs and Bible scriptures to entertain and encourage.
“The coloring book was originally created with cancer patients in mind, but then God showed me that people were suffering from depression and loneliness from sheltering in place, so I should make it available for anyone that needed uplifting,” she adds.
But of the many ways Bullock seeks to help people, nothing is more center of mind for her presently than the third annual blood drive, taking place in Chicagoland in September for Blood Cancer Awareness Month. Because blood is not something that can me manufactured, donations are incredibly important, and right now, extremely necessary, as donations have been down in the pandemic and many blood banks are operating at low levels. She hopes efforts like this will help change that.
“Every two seconds someone in the U.S. needs a blood transfusion due to trauma, cancer, complications with pregnancy, sickle-cell anemia, etc,” Bullock says. “Many elective surgeries and other procedures for which blood transfusions may be required are even being postponed. We are experiencing a nationwide blood shortage and we need everyone that can donate to do so. Please give the gift of life.”
Nicole Cares Foundation and Faith Movers Church will be hosting the 3rd Annual Blood Drive with Versiti Blood Centers on Saturday, September 17, 2022, from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. CT at Faith Movers Church located at 425 Exchange St., University Park, IL. For those in the Chicagoland or Northwest Indiana, please go to www.nicolecares.org to schedule an appointment or call 1-800-7-TO-GIVE with any questions. If you are located outside of this area, please contact Versiti or your nearest blood center and donate blood.