A Life Rebuilt

Melaka Anderson

A Life Rebuilt
by Leah Grout Garris 


Despite everything Melaka Anderson ’18 has been through—breast cancer, a double mastectomy, the death of her mother, and Graves’ disease—she believes that God placed her at Mount Mercy at the right time, surrounding her with people to help her overcome the odds. 

Born in Waterloo, Iowa, Anderson was raised by a single mother who also had three sons to care for; her birth father wasn’t around often. A man who did play an important role in her life—someone who acted as a father to her—is now in prison for a minimum of 17 years.  

When she was 20, Anderson became a mother herself. Soon after, she decided to move to Cedar Rapids to start a new life. This past summer, she graduated from Mount Mercy with a degree in criminal justice.

Q: TELL US ABOUT YOUR LIFE IN WATERLOO AS A CHILD.

A: Growing up, I lived with my mom and three brothers. We were in the foster care system for a while because, for as long as I can remember, my mother was addicted to drugs: crack cocaine and opioids. I knew at age six that things weren’t right. I used to act out and was never satisfied with how life was. From a very young age, I knew I wanted to leave and pursue a better life. I didn’t want to accept the way things were. We also moved a lot. I went to five different high schools during my 11th-grade year; I really didn’t get an 11th-grade education because we moved so much. Things weren’t horrible, but I knew they could be a lot better. 

Q: WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO MOVE TO CEDAR RAPIDS?

A: In 2013, I knew it was time to leave. My son was four years old. After spending months repaying loans to get them out of default, I decided to move to Cedar Rapids so I could attend Kirkwood Community College. When the time came, I left—but I brought my mother with me from Waterloo. That was never my intention, but it’s the way it went. She had developed a form of osteoporosis right before we moved to Cedar Rapids. About a year and a half after we moved here, she went to a nursing home where they gave her a tracheotomy. But she was eventually discharged and got her own apartment. Meanwhile, I was focused on my courses. I was earning a general degree, but my classes centered on social work and criminal justice.

Q: WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO FOCUS ON CRIMINAL JUSTICE?

A: I think that, in order to help my people, I have to be inside the criminal justice system. I believe that African Americans overpopulate our prisons, and I want to help in a probation or parole position. To make something better, you have to put yourself in that situation to help your own people. So I transferred from Kirkwood to Mount Mercy, enrolling in the criminal justice program.

Q: YOU EXPERIENCED TWO LIFE-CHANGING EVENTS IN ONE WEEK WHILE YOU WERE AT MOUNT MERCY. TELL US WHAT HAPPENED.

A: As a single mother, full-time student, and caretaker for my own mother, I was under lots of stress. My body was telling me something was wrong, but I didn’t realize it until I discovered a lump in my breast that wouldn’t go away. I went to the doctor for tests. They said, “If it doesn’t go away, then come back. We think it might have something to do with caffeine.” It didn’t go away. Then they said they hought it was a cyst but would have the doctor check again. So Deb Brydon, associate professor of criminal justice, took me to get a lumpectomy. I didn’t have anyone else to go with me. Afterward, the doctor says, “It looks like a cyst. It doesn’t look cancerous.” So I thought I was in the clear. 

That same night, my mom returned to her apartment from UnityPoint Health–St. Luke’s Hospital, where she had been hospitalized because she had become very ill. She wasn’t answering her phone and her door was locked, so we found someone who could get into her apartment and bring her to me when I got home. I went upstairs to sleep for a little bit, even though I felt like I shouldn’t. She passed away overnight at age 49. 

But I wouldn’t trade that experience—taking care of my mom—for anything. She’s my mom, and I loved her. I would do it all over again. She was my best friend. Everything that she went through, I went through right along with her.

The day after her memorial, the police banged on my door for a welfare check. They told me I needed to head to my doctor’s office immediately; the doctor had been trying to reach me. I couldn’t believe it was happening, but I went to the office right away. When I got there, they told me I had breast cancer at age 28. 

Melaka Anderson

Q: HOW DID IT FEEL TO HEAR THAT NEWS SO SOON AFTER LOSING YOUR MOM?

A: At first, they said I just needed a little bit of radiation and probably no chemo. Sure enough, I had to do full-blown intensive chemo treatment and intensive radiation. It was closer to my chest wall than normal, causing me to lose my breast to make sure it was all gone. 

I still went to all my Mount Mercy classes through chemo. People told me to quit, but I had to keep going. I wasn’t doing it just for me. This work was going to remove me from the generational poverty that’s been part of me my whole life. 

I didn’t end up doing the second round of chemo because I developed a serious lung infection, spending nearly a week in the hospital. During that time, I had continuous emotional support from my closest cousin, Quishea Phillips. She talked me through every dark moment I went through. My son’s school also came through for me—especially Julie Olson Parsons, who introduced me to Rebecca McDowell at a Cedar Rapids church. Rebecca attended all my chemo appointments with me so I wasn’t alone. At the same time, I feel like God was telling me, “Ain’t nobody that can save you but me.” 

Q: HOW DID YOU GET THROUGH SUCH A HARD TIME IN YOUR LIFE—AND MANAGE TO KEEP GOING TO CLASS?

A: For a while, I became detached. I felt like this was happening to someone else—not to me. The one thing that helped was my faith in God. On purpose, He took everybody away. And I say that He did it because things just don’t play out the way they played out for me. Our family is close, and we come together for stuff like this. My whole attitude has changed because of Him. This is what He was trying to do. You can’t be more humbled than this. You can’t look at someone else’s life and feel the empathy the way I do now. Everything used to be surface level. Now I love everybody. I love the ground I walk on. I love to touch the grass. This is what He needed to do for me because I would have never moved on my own.  

Q: WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU SHARE WITH SOMEONE WHO’S GOING THROUGH TOUGH TIMES LIKE YOU DID?

A: You never know what’s truly going on underneath it all. We might be going through it, but we never really know what God is doing for us along the way. We might be thinking, “This is the wrong route. Why am I doing this? Why am I going through all of this?” But you’ll get to the other side where you can see it. I can’t tell you how I got from there to here, but I’m here. God carried me.  

Q: WHAT ARE YOUR FUTURE PLANS?

A: I’m currently working at Right at Home in a medical position due to my experiences with caring for others—especially my mother. I’m in the process of interviewing for positions in criminal justice as well, including one with the Anamosa State Penitentiary and the Clarinda Correctional Facility. I am also going through breast reconstruction surgery. I’m praying that God keeps carrying me along. He’ll bring the right people to me for the right position. I’m ready to go wherever the wind blows. 

A Mercy Tradition

Melaka Anderson ’18 credits Deb Brydon, associate professor of criminal justice, with being there when not many other people were. We spoke with Brydon to learn more about how she supports Anderson.

Q: WHAT ENCOURAGED YOU TO SERVE MELAKA LIKE YOU HAVE?

A: It’s the Mercy tradition: serving people in need. Melaka and her son don’t have a solid support system in town. Early on, when she found out she had cancer, they wouldn’t do a procedure unless someone was able to be there and drive her home. I was able to do that, and it began the process of support. The last time she had a big procedure, I spent the day with her son and had a delightful time getting to know him. He’s such a bright, polite, and artistic young man.  

Q: HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE HER FAITH AND COURAGE AS SHE GOT THROUGH THESE TOUGH TIMES?

A: She’s a very strong person. She’s so determined to make a better life for herself and her son than she had growing up. She wants to break out of that cycle and give him a better life. That’s what drives her. She can relate to many people because of the challenges she’s been through. She can translate that into helping, assisting, and challenging people.