So Many Friends Are Getting Cancer I Decided To Try And Help
I still remember where I was when my friend Nicola phoned to tell me she had stage-two breast cancer.
I was standing at my back door looking out into the courtyard when I was knocked for six. My stomach dropped and I felt tears welling in my eyes. I knew nothing about what Nic was about to go through, but I knew I didn't want her to be in this position. My strong, smart, beautiful and clever friend was about to take on the battle of her life.
I’ve known Nic for more than 10 years. We've worked closely together in media and are part of a really supportive group of people. We both love cycling, running, triathlons and keeping fit. So my first response during that horrible phone call was: "Oh my god, are you SURE?"
I was overcome with disbelief, partly because Nic had just returned from cycling 350km as part of the media coverage of the Tour de France. As long as I'd known her, she was athletic and strong. And she was only 40 years old.
But Nic's reaction to the diagnosis was a little different.
"The words felt very normal for some reason," she said. "Looking back I wasn’t that surprised. I think women's intuition had kicked in and, in truth, I had thought there was something wrong."
Unlike most stories I hear, Nic didn't feel a lump in her breast.
"I’d felt a thickening of the breast for about four months -- not a lump at all, and in fact a relatively unsubtle change," she said.
"I’d been very mindful of having mammograms, as two close friends had been diagnosed with breast cancer under the age of 40. The mammogram I’d had at age 37 showed a small amount of microcalcification -- something I was told not to worry about.
"Fast forward three years, and I found myself at the Sydney Breast Clinic, dressed in clothes ready for a day of meetings -- none of which I attended, as I was about to hear the words, 'you have breast cancer'."
While everyone around her felt shock, surprise and devastation at her diagnosis, Nic mostly struggled with the idea of dropping everything to treat it.
"Being told that I would have to put my life on hold for a year -- I couldn’t really compute that, and I think in that moment, I took it with a pinch of salt," she said.
Nic is the kind of person who seems like she can do anything. She has a rare combination of steely strength and conviction, and a gentle, warm softness – she is incredibly nurturing. Those of us close to her know that she would offer a cuddle and ask about how you’re doing if she senses you’re not feeling great. She is filled with intelligence, joy, energy and love -- the kind of person who can tackle any situation and come out of it with the best possible result. Nic is one of the most capable people I know.
But cancer doesn't discriminate, so even Nic-the-Great had to play by its rules.
Her particular brand of breast cancer, hormone positive stage two, had also travelled to two of her lymph nodes, and her oncologist thought it had been growing for about four years. It was a slow-growing cancer, which Nic feels grateful for.
She said she always thought that once a cancer had made it to your lymph nodes, you were looking at a "death sentence". I always thought the same.
"[What] was super weird was saying, 'I am going to have to have chemotherapy'," she said. "Dealing with cancer is exhausting. And not just physically. Every treatment drains you, physically and emotionally."
But after six months of chemo, a double mastectomy, six weeks of daily radiotherapy and a daily dose of Tamoxifen, which she will be taking for at least 10 years, she thankfully learned the worst possible outcome isn't always what happens.
Nic is now in remission.
She chose to have one of her two mastectomies in order to minimise risk of the cancer coming back. The other one was compulsory. But it's these tough choices that are so easy for me to sit here and document, but so incredibly difficult to make when you're going through it. It's never straightforward. You get opinions, you get more opinions, you weigh up pros and cons but, at the end of the day, you have to stand up, be an adult and make the call.
Aside from the exhaustion of treatment, Nic said, "For women it is very confronting. Early menopause, losing eyebrows and lashes, fluid retention, weight gain, tiredness, sadness, frustration... two years on I still go to bed at 8.30 – 9pm, and sleep until 6am – my body just needs it."
But Nic is not here to muck around. She is a strong, purposeful woman who has family, friends and dreams to fight for.
In terms of fighting it, she has learned to take it one day at a time. One of her key coping mechanisms is one her beloved husband Andrew gave her. He urges her to deal in facts, not hypotheticals.
"I can’t tell you how much that helped me get through dark moments of ‘what if'," she said.
Her partner in life and love has been a pillar of strength for Nic throughout her cancer battle. She said the love she has for him "knows no bounds – the strength of our relationship during and after cancer is difficult to describe. He is my rock, and my total love. I look at him every day and just fall for him more and more…to have lived through what we did, has evolved as a partnership forever."
Positivity and declarations of undying love aside, Nic is still pragmatic about what she's been dealing with.
"Getting cancer at 40 simply sucks no matter which way you look at it. Once you have cancer you then have the knowledge that it can in fact happen to you."
Even though Nic is now in remission and cancer-free, she still has annual check-ups which are daunting but necessary. She also has a final re-constructive operation coming up in two weeks, which falls around two years since her diagnosis. But to me she looks to be right back where she was two years ago as she so triumphantly tackled the mountain climbs in France.
"I feel positive, happy, and motivated to move forward with life," she said.
The difficult truth is, I have so many gorgeous friends being hit by cancer.
Cancer of the breast, appendix, liver, bowel -- everywhere. I’ve started to feel very angry about it. And the best way I can deal with that anger constructively is to do something about it, to raise awareness and try to fund the people working away to find answers.
My friends' stories inspired me to do my first half-marathon in 2015, to raise money for cancer research. I loved it so much I went on to do my first ever triathlon the next year, and the rest is history.
I’ve since done about 10 triathlons, two more half-marathons and, this year, I’m about to do the 25km Glenbrook Trail with CanToo. I’ve so far raised $4,500 in training for the Glenbrook, and more than $8,500 for cancer research in total over the years.
To Nic, I say well done my friend. May your future be bright and filled with love and adventure.