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Breast Cancer Awareness Month

This NFL wife, mother and motivational speaker survived breast cancer twice

Niya Brown Matthews is way too fabulous for cancer

Greenville, South Carolina, native Niya Brown Matthews was just 27 years old when she was first diagnosed with stage 2 cancer in her left breast. The outcome left her speechless.

“I didn’t even know anybody with it,” Matthews said. “It didn’t run in my family. I had just moved to Atlanta with my 4-year-old daughter.”

She’d also just recently buried her father, who died of lupus at the age of 50.

“I felt like I was being punked,” she said. “I couldn’t even fathom it. Seriously, why me?”

Matthews said she had no symptoms. She completed a breast self-examination in the shower and felt a knot under her arm. She thought it was a cyst from wearing deodorant that was too strong. She was experiencing no pain at all. So she pushed the idea of getting tested to the back of her mind.

“I’m pretty healthy, like I’ve been pretty healthy leading up to that,” Matthews thought at the time, trying to understand what was happening. She finally decided to see her doctor, mainly to put her mother’s concerns at ease. She got an appointment for a mammogram and felt completely out of place while waiting.

“I was just this black little girl in this waiting room with these older white women wearing robes, and it felt like a movie. It just didn’t feel real,” she said. “When I got the diagnosis and I was still grieving, I’m a daddy’s girl, and my daddy had just died, so I was in a spiral downward. I’m talking about the questioning, mad at God. I wasn’t eating. I didn’t even want to go get treatment at that time. I couldn’t believe that it was happening to me.”

After coming to grips with her diagnosis and accepting the call to battle, she underwent a lumpectomy and endured several rounds of radiation — so many that she can’t recall the number. She’d gotten down to about 110 pounds, and she said her body took the treatment “really, really hard.” But she maintained a strong immune system throughout the entire process.

In a search to find healing for her mind, body and spirit, Matthews took the advice of her oncologist and started a journal to help her through the process. She refused to go to any support groups.

“I felt ashamed,” Matthews admitted. “People know me as always having it together, and I felt like I was like the scarlet letter, red. It was a mess.”

She pulled herself together, fought her way through her treatments and beat cancer. She overcame the disease that claims the lives of thousands of women each year — until one day it resurfaced. Matthews got her second diagnosis years later.

“When it came back in the second breast, I opted to get that one cut off and just rebuild. My amazing husband was my rock, really, the second time around,” Matthews said. “It was about a year of my life. That whole process was about a year of my life, from treatments to appointments. The first time it felt like it went by so long, but the second time, and I don’t know if that’s my faith wasn’t wavering at that point, I had toughened up. When it came back again, I didn’t even tell my husband.”

In 2010, she married former NFL player Eric Matthews, a Super Bowl champion with the 1996-97 Green Bay Packers.

“It wasn’t that Eric wasn’t going to find out. He doesn’t like to see me sick. I know I’m a tough cookie, so I had to,” Matthews said. “I went ahead and told Eric, and we cried together and I was like, ‘This is not it. This isn’t going to be it. We’re going to make it work, and we’re going to get through it.’ And we did.”

Now 37, Matthews is encouraging others through her annual charity event Too Fabulous for Cancer. She is using her platform to inspire women and spread the notion that breast cancer is not a death sentence. The funds from the event, currently in its third year, are used to provide much-needed resources and comfort to cancer patients. She said she fully understands the “bureaucratic red tape and other systematic barriers that often prevent a lot of women from getting help from larger organizations.” So, through a small company, Matthews provides resources and other items to uplift and empower women during their personal breast cancer battle.

Her last event was on Oct. 21 in Atlanta during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Each year there is an open call from the organization for letters nominating a patient to be selected for a surprise glam makeover at the event. Funds also go directly to selected women for doctor visit co-pays, gas, food, baby sitters during their treatment if they have children, wigs and other out-of-pocket expenses that are not covered by even the best health insurance.

Throughout her journey, Matthews witnessed a series of family members die after her own diagnosis. Watching and reliving their struggles fueled her passion for giving back even more.

“I had already buried 13 of my family members; even my sister was diagnosed at 31. And she said she never would have thought that she needed to go get checked. She was stage 0, which is great because she caught it early.”

Matthews is an author, motivational speaker, humanitarian, real estate professional, wife and mother. Her compassion for others has been the drive for her humanitarian outreach work. Her goals include helping to inspire, enrich and educate women. As president of the Eric Matthews Foundation, she pushes community outreach projects, feeds the homeless and hosts toy drives alongside her husband.

Her book, The Boss In You, empowers and inspires women and young girls to overcome their obstacles and find success in their lives and careers. “My daughter named that book. She says every time she would hear me on the phone talking to somebody, I was telling them to boss up and get it together.”

Matthews said the hardest part of her journey has been learning how to wind down and shut down her busy lifestyle.

“I have one of the biggest hearts,” she said. “My husband and I, we are philanthropists on every level, humanitarians. We give back. And sometimes you want to just be able to do more, but realistically, we’re not balling. We can’t just give it all, but sometimes we need to shut that off, because you’d be amazed at how many inbox messages and Facebook messages and emails I get from people wanting help, or to listen to them, or give them a resource. I go to bed with that. It’s very hard to shut that off. I want to help them all, I do.”

Matthews created a nationwide tour to help combat bullying and body image shaming. Her Finding Your Purpose Tour sets out to speak to female students at high schools, colleges, women’s organizations and corporations about building self-esteem, making positive life choices and the importance of women supporting other women. She recently kicked off her new project: Soulfood Sessions with Niya, set for Nov. 4. The daylong series is an intimate brunch that empowers, celebrates and uplifts women through Matthews’ golden nuggets of inspiration, and she also allows women to share their thoughts.

Kelley Evans is a general editor at The Undefeated. She is a food passionista, helicopter mom and an unapologetic southerner who spends every night with the cast of The Young and the Restless by way of her couch.