When Molly May was 19 years old, she learned she was almost guaranteed to develop breast cancer in the next two to five years.
At the time, May was a freshman at Itawamba Community College. She’d been active in the Miss America program all through her teen years and was drum major for the college’s marching band.
She also had to get tested for the mutated gene BRCA1, which greatly increased the chances of getting breast cancer and which runs in her family.
She can remember being in the doctor’s office in Jackson when she received the news.
“[The doctor] leaned up against the door and said, ‘There’s no easy way to say this, so I’m just going to tell you. You have this gene. Let’s talk about what comes next,'” May said.
May had known since she was 8 there was a risk of developing breast cancer because that’s when her mother was diagnosed. As a single parent, she kept working and taking care of May while undergoing two separate mastectomies and three years of both radiation and chemotherapy. Watching her mother go through that, May understood it could be her one day.
So when her doctor told her she had the gene, she had already decided she wanted a mastectomy herself.
“I was like, ‘Just taken them, dude,'” she said.
Now 22 and a senior at Mississippi State University, May has already had a double mastectomy and implants put in at an age when most people haven’t had their first mammogram and many haven’t even started their monthly breast exams. She is the youngest person to have those particular surgeries in the state of Mississippi.
In September, she also earned the Miss MSU crown and is using her experiences — both from watching her mom fight breast cancer and also surviving it herself — to generate awareness and support for others.
May was in the hospital for three days after surgery, but her recovery took about six months. At first, she couldn’t move her arms. She had two drains coming from each arm and required other people feed and take care of her.
Every two days, her mother bathed her and then left her to sit on a stool in the shower to cry and pray in private, May said.
“And then we would change my bandages and do another puzzle on the kitchen table and watch another Netflix,” she added.
Friends in the community jumped to help the family, May said. Her mother’s three older brothers all visited during and after May’s surgery. Her best friend made her lunch and dinner every day. Neighbors mowed the lawn, her preacher visited and church friends brought food and found other ways to help.
As for May, she got through the summer by reading everything anyone put in front of her, doing countless puzzles and watching every ’80s movie on Netflix. When she began physical therapy, her goal was to have enough range of motion in her arms to where she could direct the marching band at Itawamba.
“I pushed myself so hard in physical therapy,” she said. “I would get in trouble sometimes because my mom said I would do too much. I ended up getting to conduct the next season, so I don’t regret a thing.”
But May’s battles at hospitals weren’t over yet. Her reconstructive surgery was planned for December 2014. Until then, May had plastic spacers put in. Once a month she went to her plastic surgeon for him to inject saline.
Two years and nine scars later, May’s battle is mostly over. She still has some breast tissue, but her chances of developing breast cancer are now down 2 to 5 percent. She attends yearly checkups with her breast surgeon and plastic surgeon.
Since her surgery, May has talked to countless people, including some near her own age, who have been diagnosed with breast cancer and are facing mastectomies and other forms of treatment.
“It is the most rewarding and humbling thing in the world when people walk up to me and ask for my advice because of the struggles that I’ve faced,” May said.
She promotes breast cancer awareness and is involved in nonprofits that support breast cancer patients and survivors. She also promotes an app called IBreastCheck, which sets monthly alarms for people to do their monthly self-exams and has set up booths on campus where people can write encouraging letters to patients for an organization called Girls Love Mail.
Through her campaign, “Bald is Beautiful,” she aims to provide handmade head scarves and hats to every breast cancer treatment facility in the state.
“You can just find little ways … to get involved,” she said.