Despite health challenges, the Rev. Dr. Unnia Pettus uses "faith-i-tude" to continue fighting. (Courtesy photo)
Despite health challenges, the Rev. Dr. Unnia Pettus uses "faith-i-tude" to continue fighting. (Courtesy photo)

The Rev. Dr. Unnia Pettus has almost died three times. But despite a stroke, heart failure, and four cancer diagnoses, she keeps the faith and preaches God’s word. 

“The doctors can give you a diagnosis, but only God can give you destiny, and destiny will always win,” said Pettus, a 54-year-old minister, Ph.D., and book author who has outlasted a grim prognosis many times. 

Last month, Pettus received the Lilly Daniels Legacy Award from the Open My Heart Foundation, named for a woman who raised thousands to fight cancer before dying in 2018. 

“The Lilly Daniels Legacy award was started by myself because she was a cancer survivor who gave whatever she could until cancer claimed her life,” said Florence Champagne, CEO of the foundation that organized the Red Dress Ball at Martin’s Crosswinds in Greenbelt last month. 

Daniels worked at Thomas Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for over 17 years. While there, she saw the devastating impact of sickness, diseases and various illnesses.  

In 2002 Daniels was diagnosed with breast cancer. During chemotherapy, she would often hear other patients complain about the expenses of treatments for cancer and other diseases. 

“I’m a heart attack survivor, and heart disease is an expensive disease; it can cost $40,000, $50,000, or $60,000,” said Champagne. “Unnia is the ultimate survivor, and look at what God has done.” 

In 2004, Pettus was diagnosed with colon cancer, then came kidney cancer, gynecologic cancer, breast cancer, and then had a stroke. “ 

In 2007, she wrote her first book, “Nobody But God: A Journey of Faith From Tears to Triumph.” Since then, she has co-authored a book about President Obama and co-edited another by her late public relations mentor, Ofield Dukes. Pettus describes her ups and downs with cancer this way. 

“My journey started with Stage 4 colon cancer when I was 33. Then in 2012, a blood clot caused me to have a stroke with right-side paralysis. I ended up in a wheelchair, and I had to learn how to write, walk and talk again. It took nearly two years to be functional, like going from a baby to an adult. After that, three brain tumors in my pituitary gland, which were benign but painful, resulted in extreme memory disabilities and speech issues that I still have today.” 

Pettus Is still preaching hard and not giving up on life even though it was thought she had to say goodbye to her family many times. 

“When people hear about my cancer four times, a  stroke with paralysis, living with moderate cardiomyopathy, I want them to be encouraged, inspired, and empowered never to give up and keep an attitude of gratitude and faith.” 

Instead of dwelling on her pain, she focuses on the positive side of her illnesses. “The gift,” she explained, “is that God shows us to appreciate the little things in life.”  

In addition to battling several illnesses, Pettus is a domestic violence survivor.

Having faced all these challenges, Pettus inspires others, particularly her mother, Beverly Hudgens. 

“She is a fighter,” Hudgens said. “ They told me at least three times that she  would not live past 45 days, and she did.” 

“I said, ‘Lord, you gave her to me, prepare me.’ When they tell them about how long she has to live, it is like water off a camel’s back. She is getting stronger, and we take it one day at a time. “ 

While Pettus has been in and of hospitals and emergency rooms for nearly two decades, she has written three books and is working on two others. She also reaches thousands through her sermons, speeches, and podcast. 

“We can’t pick what we go through, but we can pick how we go through it,” Pettus said. “ I choose to praise God through my storms. I want people to be encouraged, inspired, and empowered by reading my books, hearing me speak and doing media interviews, and being transparent on social media.” 

“Some days I can hardly get out the bed, like the day I received the open heart foundation award,” Pettus explained, “But  I have a faith-i-tude  which is the attitude that no matter what I go through, I am not going to allow my circumstance to affect my unwavering faith.” 

Pettus also said she has learned to advocate for her own health and educate her medical team about clinical trials and alternative medicine.  

“I had to become vigilant not for myself, but for those coming behind me.” 

Follow Pettus on all social media @DrUnniaPettus and visit her website,

Hamil R. Harris

Hamil Harris is an award-winning journalist who worked at the Washington Post from 1992 to 2016. During his tenure he wrote hundreds of stories about the people, government and faith communities in the...

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