Hi! I’m Niki. I worked many years in radio as a morning dj. Along with regular fits of laughter, what I loved most about the job was the opportunity to meet so many people, and hopefully, impact lives in a positive way. As a station, we supported as many community fundraisers as possible, and were long time supporters of St Jude Children’s Research Hospital. For over 12 years, I traveled back to Memphis to visit that hospital, hear patient stories, and learn about the ever so vital RESEARCH that has improved cure rates for pediatric cancers. Never in all of those visits, could I envision myself dealing with cancer. I always felt sorry for these kids, and I wondered how it was that they could still be smiling and still behave as if they weren’t sick at all.
When cancer strikes, life changes. You have to learn to live with a “new normal”… cancer’s new normal.
You can view these forced changes as unfortunate, and suffer your way through your remaining time… or you can do as these children have taught me to do… Appreciate every little thing you once overlooked in your busy day to day life! More importantly, take the opportunity to make a difference in other people’s lives. You can inspire, advocate for others, and teach them how important science and research are, by sharing your story.
So… here is my story…
I will never again think “it can’t happen to me”. At 44 years old, I had it all. I was a mom, a wife, a morning radio dj, a radio station promotions director, a runner and an avid cyclist in the best shape of my life! I never saw the “life flip” coming. My bicycle was ready for the usual 22 miles of “mental break ride” at lunch the day I had a seizure while on air. It was a Friday. April 12, 2013 at 8:15 am. An ambulance ride to the ER and a few hours of searching/scanning revealed “at least 3 tumors” in my brain, along with three more in my lungs. My life had changed in an unforeseen moment. I had stage IV cancer, and if I wanted to remain alive, there was no time to waste. Even with 20/20 hindsight of my condition, I still cannot point to any definite signs that my body and brain were being overtaken by melanoma.
I was diagnosed that April with Stage IV Metastatic Melanoma. Unfortunately, our family history with cancers, had resulted in the death of three of our parents between 2006 and early 2013. On the silver lining side, this had given my husband some incredible experience as a patient advocate. With my diagnosis, he knew we needed to step up the game and get experts on board. He had me down to USC in Los Angeles, within a week, for a neurosurgical consultation. Eleven days after my initial ER visit, I was already at USC Keck undergoing brain surgery. That first craniotomy was followed three weeks later with gamma knife radiation to treat the tumors that remained in my head. Another four days passed, and we began immunotherapy (Yervoy) at USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center to treat the tumors that had been growing in my lungs. The first batch of immunotherapy (Yervoy) was completed in late July 2013, followed by another round of gamma knife brain radiation in late September to treat 2 new brain tumors… and that is only the beginning of a loooong story.
Fast forward ten years since that fateful day in April 2013, and I’m still here! Still learning and forever watchful. There is no “cure” for melanoma. Active treatment has wrapped up, but check ups with medical oncology still occur in annual intervals, the VERY IMPORTANT brain MRI’s, check ups with radiation oncology, and dermatology checks are every 5-6 months. We’ve come to know the doctors, nurses, and staff of USC Norris and USC Keck quite well. My medical team smiles with me, laughs with me, and fights right alongside me. All total so far… I’ve undergone 2 craniotomies, had a lobe of lung removed, resection of a lump on my back, 10 rounds of gamma knife brain radiation (37 tumors zapped!), 4 months of what we laughingly refer to as “Mike’s Magic Pill”, and nearly 2 years of immunotherapy infusions.
Nothing is the normal that it was a decade ago. We now have “cancer’s normal”, and it really isn’t all bad. This journey hasn’t always been a roll through the park, but I know that pain is often temporary, and I have been shown that some good can come from horrible things.