Cadiz native Carletta Cunningham is known as the “fearless friend that can do anything.”
Cunningham, who now lives in Atlanta, has overcome many trials and tribulations in her life — not the least of which was breast cancer. She is a literal conqueror and true life-like embodiment of “Veni, Vidi, Vici.”
2012 was the year Cunningham decided she wanted to compete in her first ever triathlon. In that same year, her aspirations were put on hold after her father passed away from colon cancer. As she began back training, the following year in 2013, not even 6 months after getter her annual mammogram, Cunningham’s doctor ordered another mammogram and ultrasound, where an anomaly was found with a biopsy to follow. On March 29, 2013 at the age of 41, Carletta was diagnosed with 2B triple-negative breast cancer.
“You always remember where you were, and what you’re doing,” she said. “I was at my desk and when the doctor called, he said, ‘We found a little cancer.’ ”
Cunningham said the words “little” and “cancer” should never be in the same sentence. After calling her family and friends, the gravity of the news didn’t sink in right away.
“I probably didn’t cry for about a week after the diagnosis because it was just so shocking,” she said. “I didn’t quite grasp it at first.”
Three months after being diagnosed with breast cancer, on June 25, 2013 Cunningham underwent a double mastectomy — where both of her breasts were removed. From August to December 2013, she then started 16 aggressive rounds of chemotherapy before having reconstructive surgery on her chest.
In just eight short months after having gone through a roller coster of several treatments and emotions both physical and mental, Cunningham began retraining for the triathlon she dreamed of completing.
She entered a contest via social media for “first time ever triathlons.” Cunningham’s entry picture showed her sporting a clean shaven head, and t-shirt that read “She’s a fighter.” Over 4,000 people voted for her which resulted in her winning the competition as well as a bike and membership to the Atlanta Tri Club.
“God works in mysterious ways,” she said. “Winning the contest solidified training for my first ever triathlon.”
This event included a quarter-mile swim in Lake Allatoona, a 13-mile bike ride and a 5K run.
Since completing her first mission, Cunningham has been able to transcend her energy in ways unimagined. She has now completed a total of four sprint triathlons, alongside two 2-day walks for breast cancer awareness that consists of 30 miles in 2 days. Cunningham recently finished a three-day, 120-mile journey with other survivors that consisted of 30 miles of kayaking and a 90 miles bike ride with the organization Project Athena.
“I would like to encourage survivors to keep a journal and calendar of all the things that they’d like to accomplish when treatment ends,” she said. “Write big, courageous dreams! Stretch your dreams beyond your imagination. I envisioned what health looked like on the other side of cancer.”
Cunningham is proud to be a part of CDC’s #BringYourBrave campaign raising awareness about breast cancer in young women. She also is a part of multiple boards and organizations in Atlanta such as “Its the Journey” and “Loving Arms Cancer Outreach,” she is also captain to a team of phenomenal women called “Simply the Breast” who has raised $140,000 with the support of her team. Cunningham has been honored by the Atlanta Braves and Falcons alongside Northside Hospital for her continued effort in fighting against breast cancer.
Cunningham’s grandmother, Charlene, passed at the young age of 44 just a year after receiving the news of having breast cancer alongside treatment.
“I never had the privilege of meeting my maternal grandmother. What her life and death impressed upon me was the importance of getting screened,” she said.
Cunningham’s family history on both sides were prevalent in battling cancer.
“Early detection is key, I began mammogram screens at age 35. My journey has given me the opportunity to share my story and raise awareness,” she said. “My main messages just consists of three things: always advocate for yourself, learn your family health risk history, and be sure to get your breast exams, including both self-examinations and at the doctors’ office.
“I am still here. I like to keep it moving. Tomorrow isn’t promised to anyone. I’d like to thank God for everything he’s brought me through, and the goals I never imagined conquering. God has been good to me. I’d always like to thank my friends and family,” Cunningham said. “A good support system is also key. Though during my battle I have lost my breasts, I have gained so many other strengths I never knew I had. Cancer has given me more than what it has taken away. This is my new normal. I live with purpose and on purpose. If I could give my younger self advice having been down the road I am on, I would tell her, ‘Girl it’s gonna be okay! Speak life. Stay positive and be intentional. Brighter days are ahead.”