Regina Hill: Cancer survivor, advocate for mental health awareness

It has been just over two years since Regina Hill has been in remission (or cured, the term that she and her doctor use) from the biggest fight of her life — cancer. After having gone through this experience, the native of Grand Rapids’ Southeast Side says she is moving forward knowing “that nobody can’t tell you nothing.”

The year life changes

It was late 2020 when Hill, now 43, found a lump in her breast. The marketing professional, who then was working for herself and in the process of interviewing for another position, did not immediately get checked. She went on vacation, and when she returned she went to her doctor, who advised more tests. 

Hill describes this part of the process, which included a mammogram, biopsy, and CT scan, as surreal, especially when her body was being marked with X’s during one of the examinations – she later learned that these marked areas were spots that the doctors thought were cancerous.

CourtesyRegina Hill was diagnosed with stage 2 triple-positive cancer but survived.

CourtesyAfter five months of chemotherapy, Regina Hill is cancer free.

After starting a new position with Merrill on March 22, Hill, while working from home, received the positive cancer diagnosis over the phone on March 30. She was home alone and felt like her whole world was crashing down on her. Her first thought was, “Am I gonna die?”

Hill called her mom, who came to sit with her and would become her primary caregiver during her cancer journey. She also turned to her fiancé, John, who she had been dating for three years. Hill says the diagnosis has been a true test of their relationship, adding that he has been a huge support and patient with her through the various emotions she experienced.

Having the support of her new employer was also helpful, as people there encouraged Hill to concentrate on herself and on getting better. Hill later learned that her support system was even deeper, realizing she had many people in her life who were either fellow cancer survivors or there to help her navigate all of the changes that were to come.

Stage 2 triple-positive cancer

Hill says she was diagnosed with stage 2 triple-positive cancer, an aggressive form of cancer that could travel from her breasts to her lymph nodes. Her eight-hour outpatient surgery entailed a single mastectomy, removal of her lymph nodes, and reconstructive surgery.

Hill went through five months of chemotherapy, 16 treatments altogether. Because she was planning her wedding, the reality of losing her hair was what caused her to break down crying. Hill also explained the shock of losing hair on most parts of her body – places you wouldn’t normally consider.

“You go through cancer, you go through the treatment, you watch your hair go away, you have a lot of self-esteem issues,” she says. “I would say there are a lot of unspoken things.”

As Hill describes it, everything went really fast once she got the diagnosis. She trusted her doctors, so there was no looking for a second opinion or putting off the next steps. Hill is considered a young breast cancer survivor, and says she is interested in advocating for the growing number of young women being diagnosed with cancer.

“You’re part of a sorority that you never chose to be a part of,” she says, adding that she  doesn't know the reason she got cancer, though testing ruled out genetic reasons.

Lastly, when she discovered the lump that she eventually had checked, Hill says she did not have any pain, although she had a clue something was wrong. She says she had two raised bumps that were signs, but she didn’t realize that at the time. Hill adds that cancer can be in someone’s body for years without them even knowing.

Depression and mental health

Hill stresses that the effects of chemotherapy vary for each person. For Hill, it was painful, yet she never got nauseous. She adds that she experienced depression, even after being declared cancer-free. 

There is a mental shift, says Hill, including the reality of not stressing over “the small stuff” because she survived cancer.  “Initially, you go through, ‘I gotta keep on going.’ Then you’re tired; then there’s the realization of ‘Did I almost die? I really had cancer.’”

As she continues working on her health, Hill is changing her diet — no processed meats, consuming low-fat dairy, eating less sugar (her vice) and less fried food. Then, there is her mental health awareness and advocacy, something that dates back to when she was a preteen.

Hill says that she had anxiety when her aunt died when she was 12 years old. The anxiety went away, but returned in her junior year at Michigan State University. A 1998 graduate of Ottawa Hills High School, Hill was doing well in college until the anxiety returned and she went into a bad depression around 2001.

She says there was less discussion about mental health or chemical imbalances then, so she had no idea why she was having suicidal thoughts and crying involuntarily in her classes. Hill says the most she heard came from Christians who advised her to “pray it away,” but she needed help. 

Her first attempt at taking medication was not successful, but her second attempt made the difference that she needed to help her along. Saying that cancer awareness is much greater than mental health awareness, Hill is determined to advocate for those needing mental health assistance and experiencing what she did.

“You have to be mentally tough, and there are times you won’t be.”

Hill went on to obtain her bachelor’s degree in marketing at MSU in 2002, and later earned a master’s degree in strategic management from Davenport University.

Moving forward

Today, Hill is married to John, and they are the parents of one son after going through the adoption process. Although she may physically be able to have children, Hill says that her doctors advised her to take birth control and not get pregnant.

Although she has been cancer-free since October 2021, Hill says that she will continue to see her doctors for about 10 years.

Hill is keeping busy running RRP Marketing, which she established in 2012 but grew and expanded in 2017. With a strong marketing background from working at Merrill, as well as such companies as Meijer and Steelcase, Hill has built her brand and continues to level up – something that she advises to those considering entrepreneurship.

“It’s hard, and you have to be a self-motivator and critic of yourself,” says Hill. “Become a master of business more than you are a master of your craft.”

Hill, a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, is also a board member for Arbor Circle, an organization she works with in mental health advocacy. She plans to continue the much-needed and honest conversations about experiencing cancer and mental health issues. 

A part of that honesty is letting others know that “it’s OK to not be OK; it’s OK to not be strong.” In allowing oneself to experience every emotion that comes with the journey, Hill feels that this helps one to be more in tune with their mortality.
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