The day Angelica May rang the bell at Novant Health Zimmer Cancer Institute in Wilmington – March 20, 2024 – is one she’ll never forget. May, who was diagnosed with breast cancer at just 26, had dreamed of this for six months, during each of her 16 rounds of chemotherapy infusion treatments.

As she walked toward the bell, she was surrounded by a throng of adoring friends, family and health care team members. “You did it,” they called out. “You did it, girl!”

May grasped the cord and pulled, letting a joyful clang ring out. What she didn’t know was that there was a ring of a different kind awaiting her – this one in the form of a diamond.

May’s boyfriend and best friend of nearly a decade, Imeek Watkins, planned a surprise marriage proposal to take place inside the Zimmer Cancer Institute. After May rang the bell, she turned to Watkins, who was standing at the end of a red carpet.

"For you to be this young, going through something like this, it's just amazing how you just pushed through it and finished this whole process," he said.

Then the surprise words as he dropped to one knee: “I want to know, will you marry me?”

Angelica May proposal
A family member's cell phone video captured the moment when Watkins proposed to May.

Surrounded by a chorus of “Aaaaaaw!” from the loved ones around them, May ducked her head and swiped her eyes before replying, “Yes.” As one journey ended, a new one was beginning.

May posted a cellphone video of the proposal on TikTok. Within a few days, the couple had received phone calls from the producers of “The Jennifer Hudson Show,” “Good Morning America” and People magazine, among others.

But there’s much more to this story than a heartwarming viral video. The clip represents a long, hard journey for the couple, who both devoted their lives to the treatment plan May’s oncology team developed for her. Here’s how they got through May’s breast cancer diagnosis and chemo together, with the help of her expert oncology team at Novant Health New Hanover Regional Medical Center.

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A genetic discovery

During a breast self-check in July 2023, May felt a lump and thought it was probably a cyst. She talked with one of her cousins and learned that she had an extensive family history of breast cancer on her father’s side. She made an appointment with her primary care doctor to have the lump checked out.

May’s doctor sent her for a mammogram, followed by a second mammogram, then a biopsy. That revealed her diagnosis: stage 2 triple-negative breast cancer.

An aggressive subtype, triple-negative breast cancer accounts for about 10-15% of all breast cancers, and it’s more likely to occur in women under 40, the recommended mammography screening age, the Breast Cancer Research Foundation reports. May was devastated.

“I thought that was it for me,” she said. “I knew about cancer, but I really didn’t know too much about it. I thought it was incurable, so I really thought I was about to die.”

Watkins, who was a wide receiver for the Bay Area Panthers, a professional arena football team in California, was at work when May tearfully called him to break the news.

“It was definitely shocking,” he said. “But I knew I just had to stay positive about the whole situation.”

Watkins flew home to Wilmington to be at May’s side as she learned about her treatment plan and prepared to begin chemotherapy infusions at the Zimmer Cancer Institute. May’s doctors were working quickly; in less than two months she would go from finding a lump that she didn’t think could be cancerous to receiving her first chemotherapy infusion.

Dr. Lindsey Prochaska
Dr. Lindsey Prochaska

There to help the couple navigate the course was Dr. Lindsey Prochaska, May’s oncologist. Prochaska explained that while May’s breast cancer was aggressive, they would fight it aggressively, too.

May would receive four different intravenous chemotherapy medications, including doxorubicin, nicknamed “red devil” because of its hue and the harsh side effects it commonly causes. She would also receive pembrolizumab, an IV immunotherapy drug that helps increase the body’s ability to attack cancer cells and tumors.

All of this was important for May and Watkins to know. But it’s what Prochaska said next that really stuck with them.

May recalls, in her own words, what Prochaska told her: “It’s beatable, it’s curable. We are gonna do this. The type of chemotherapy we have is way stronger than your cancer. We are gonna do this and you’re gonna be fine.”

Prochaska’s confidence made all the difference. May was steeled for the fight ahead.

“I love that lady so much,” May said. “I loved her from day one. She and Dr. (Michelle) Fillion, my surgeon, they were very concerned. You can tell when a doctor is just doing a job or whatever. And then you can tell when a doctor actually cares. And they literally care.”

Prochaska said May and Watkins approached the breast cancer fight as partners from day one, creating the circle of trust and confidence that guided them through the treatment process.

“I love my patients. It's a personal goal of mine with every patient to make sure that he/she knows how much I care,” Prochaska said. “Angelica embraced me and trusted me from the start, which made it easy for our relationship to grow.”

Angelica May chemo
Watkins accompanied May during her chemotherapy treatments at the Zimmer Cancer Institute.

The chemo journey

May, who usually has an active job as a preschool teacher and describes herself as “not a homebody kind of person,” took a leave of absence from work and focused on recovering at home.

“I was in the house a lot because I was sick a lot,” she said. “I would be tired. I couldn’t clean, I couldn’t cook. He had to do pretty much everything for me,” she said, gesturing to Watkins. “It was a big change for me. … There were days when I would come and lie on him and just cry because I was hurting so bad.”

It was hard for Watkins to see May so sick. But they remembered Prochaska’s reassurance and took each day at a time.

“It was tough,” Watkins said. “I would try to stay as encouraging as possible.”

While caring for May, Watkins held down two jobs: one at Planet Fitness and another at Lids, a hat store in Independence Mall. He accompanied May to her chemo treatments, and when her stomach revolted against most foods, a common chemo side effect, he took her to Dairy Queen for their favorite treat, vanilla soft serve with strawberry sauce and pecans.

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