Friends describe Nicole Kramer as airy, bright and warm. Nikki simply is light. She’s the girl who planned a last hurrah with girlfriends before surgeries and infusions became her new normal. Cool, strong, lovely and fun; everything you’d hope for in a friend. She is the girl you want in your corner. It has been only eight months since Nikki was diagnosed with stage three Triple Negative breast cancer. She’s in the fight right now. Join me in her corner today.
Tell us about your diagnosis.
In September 2012 I had a routine mammogram which came back clean. That December I felt a lump, so I showed it to my primary doctor during my yearly physical in January. She sent me to the Breast Specialist, who did a biopsy, and by February 1st I was diagnosed with Stage 3 Triple Negative. I got the news by phone, as soon as the results were in, at 5pm. A week later, it was confirmed that I also have BRCA1 gene mutation.
Can you share with us your reaction to the news?
Numb. I don’t remember anything the doctor said to me on the phone. All I heard was “cancer.” My own mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at 38 years old, so I wasn’t completely shocked that I had it, too. She passed away at age 46. I was 39 when I got my diagnoses, six months before my 40th birthday.
It was hard to breathe. My poor husband was a wreck. Time stopped, not just that night, but for the next three months. It was hard to think of the future. I don’t even remember what I did the night of my diagnosis. My numbness got worse when I heard about the Triple Negative and BRCA gene mutation. A double whammy that took me from numb to terrified and overall hopeless. The only people I knew who had cancer were dead. I was sure I was going to die.
I was so scared for my daughter, who was six years old at that time. One night in bed, not long after my diagnosis, she said to me – out of the blue “Because your mom had cancer and you have cancer, does that mean I’ll have cancer?” At that time, I lied and said “no.” It stunned me that she asked it. I had been thinking this, but never said it. When she said it…I didn’t know how to answer her.
Triple Negative Breast Cancer can be aggressive and hard to treat. What treatment options were presented?
On March 6th 2013 I had a double mastectomy and removal of 32 lymph nodes from my right side (the highest my doctor, and anyone else has ever heard of, and puts me at high risk of getting Lymphedema). Evil metal tissue expanders were then put in, to make room for my future breast implants (had I known how painful and awful those were, I wouldn’t have done them).
I was back and forth to the doctor to have my surgical drains removed and tissue expanders filled, plus physical and occupational therapy to help me regain strength in my right arm. I lost all range of motion in my arm for months, and had to work hard to get it back in the midst of my treatments.
In April, I had surgery to put my port in, then I began aggressive chemotherapy (ACT). The day after each chemo treatment, I had to get a shot of Neulasta, which made me feel worse than the chemo. That’s what landed me in bed for 3-4 days with pain and body aches every other week when I had my treatments.
On May 1st 2013, my friend Kim came over to shave my head because my hair had begun falling out. I still have a lock of my hair from that day.
This past September, I had surgery to remove the tissue expanders and put in the breast implants; removed the chemo port; had my uterus scraped to be sure it was “clean”; and an oophorectomy. This was all done on my daughter’s 1st day of Second Grade.
I will begin six weeks of radiation beginning October 1st 2013. At that point, treatment will be over but I will be in the full throes of menopause for which I won’t be able to take any hormone replacement therapy due to my being Triple Negative status.
I was in the best, healthiest shape of my life upon diagnosis – I had just completed The Tough Mudder in New Jersey at the end of October 2012. My husband and I trained for a year for that competition. The year of preparation for such a hard race really helped me get through my cancer treatment. I am so thankful for that.
I can clearly remember how taxing chemo and radiation were to my body. Tell me about your current state of physical and mental well-being.
Every day has been a struggle physically, but I was surprised at how it has been a challenge to my self-esteem. I’ve always had good self-esteem, but cancer took my boobs, my hair, my eyelashes and eyebrows. That was devastating. Made it hard to get up every day.
I think that once my treatment is done, my mental well-being will truly be challenged. I can’t go on anything else. I won’t be on any medicine to help me. I have to cross my fingers and hope.
I don’t know whether the hard part is behind me or ahead of me. How do I not live in fear? I can’t think of that yet, because I am still going through treatment. I’ll see what happens, how I feel, once radiation treatment is over in November.
You are in a very fragile stage of survivorship and I know many can relate. Are you able see life beyond what is in front of you right now?
I’m frozen with fear right now. I haven’t moved yet. I’m just hoping to have normalcy one day.
What do you think the challenges are that keep you from the life you once knew?
I can’t do things I enjoyed, my normal gym routine – can’t lift weights, do push-ups, can’t challenge myself by doing another Tough Mudder with my husband. It potentially could affect my long term career. I’m a florist, and I need to lift heavy things – which I can’t do anymore. I haven’t worked since Valentine’s Day 2013, right before treatment began.
I’m not sure how else cancer and the treatment will affect me, my life, my relationships, my job, everything. We’ll have to wait and see.
And if it comes back…I’ll keep fighting. That’s for sure.
There is a positive to all of this: I have met so many survivors since my diagnosis and I had never known anyone who survived cancer before. I joined Livestrong and learned how to stay as strong as I can be, depending on where I am in my treatment and health. The other people in that group give me hope, they inspire me. I do choose hope.