Nikki’s story – ‘Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine having cancer and Covid’
For all her years in nursing, Nikki Knight could never have been prepared for a whirlwind few months that included a shock breast cancer diagnosis and serious Covid illness in her family.
In 2020 with the pandemic still raging the front-line worker and mum-of-four from Balbriggan found a lump in her breast.
Both it and a further lump discovered through a follow-up mammogram were soon after confirmed to be cancerous, and Nikki was scheduled for a mastectomy with some surrounding lymph nodes also removed to reduce her risk
She started chemotherapy in late 2020, however she did encounter a number of complications along the way including a condition called lymphoedema affecting her right arm that causes swelling and intense discomfort, as well as a reduction in her white blood cell count leaving her more open to infection, and a painful abscess.
Difficult as all this was to deal with, further drastic challenges would await her as Covid made its way through her family.
“Because it was during the pandemic, we felt so helpless at the time,” remembers Nikki.
We had a staggered isolation period as the children were gradually all testing positive, so it was limited in terms of people being able to come to the house to help us, and of course people were fearful themselves back in early 2021.
Nikki’s radiotherapy had to be delayed, but worse was still to come as her husband Craig, a fellow front-line worker who Nikki describes as being her “rock” throughout treatment, also fell ill with the virus, even having to be admitted to intensive care and put on a ventilator for a period.
“None of the kids had anticipated that their dad would become ill in the middle of the pandemic while I was going through cancer. Never in our wildest dreams did we think that would be the dynamic.
“He fought like William Wallace. We were told he was likely to be on a ventilator for seven to eight weeks, but it ended up being two,” recalls Nikki, whose sister came home from Scotland to help support the family at the time.
“People have just been so good, especially my family, friends and work colleagues. Particularly when Craig was so ill there was so many people who helped by bringing in food, and a lot of people were enormously kind and generous. We can't thank them enough.
“The hospital were ringing me asking if I was ready to start my radiation, and I didn’t know whether I was coming or going so they had to stall it again, so I didn’t get finished by radiation until the beginning of May.
“I had it in my head during treatment that it was like running through a battlefield, and every time I’d stumble Craig would come back to me and tell me ‘you’re not giving up, you’re not giving up Nikki, we’ll get to the finishing line’, and if he didn’t do that I don’t know where I’d be now.”
Thankfully both Nikki and Craig came through their respective ordeals, although dealing with the aftermath has been hard.
This was particularly the case as Nikki returned to her nursing duties last year: “I didn’t realise the battering my body had taken, both physically and mentally. I won’t lie, I hit a wall.
“When you’re going through cancer treatment, you will yourself to get out of the bed every day and to go from treatment to treatment, and you don’t want anything to delay it and stop it. I wanted to be back in work and feel like everyone else,” adds Nikki, who ultimately elected to temporarily move to a less intensive role in the hospital as she dealt with her own recovery.
Fortunately, Nikki was able to call on some help along the way.
“The radiation team in St Luke’s were brilliant as were the staff in Our Lady of Lourdes in Drogheda, and the oncology services in general were very good.
“The Irish Cancer Society were on the phone giving me help and support. We couldn’t have been more in the depths of despair, but I feel that talking about it helps you to process it,” says Nikki, who got in touch with the Society’s Freephone Support Line through which she was able to access a number of counselling sessions.
Reflecting on what has been a rollercoaster journey for both her and her family, when it comes to a particular day or event that she lost to cancer it is a tale of two confirmations that comes immediately to mind for Nikki:
“My son had been due to make his confirmation before Covid, but unfortunately for me the date chosen was 23 August 2020 which was 10 days after my mastectomy.
“I was barely able to brush my hair that morning let alone want to meet anyone. I remember going to the church on a wet morning trying to part take in the mass, but I couldn't kneel down for prayers and could barely even sit – I couldn’t even take photos due to the lymphoedema in my arm, and eating dinner with family after was also a challenge. All I wanted to do was get home and not be in any discomfort, and only for my husband I don't know what I would have done.
“Then my daughter’s confirmation was scheduled for the last day of my chemotherapy - who would have thought that I would have two confirmations in the same year as having breast cancer! Fortunately Covid prevented that from happening and it was delayed until August 2021, and thankfully myself and her daddy were there which was nice, especially after Craig had been in ICU.”
Although Nikki feels there may have been warning signs prior to her own cancer diagnosis, she felt she did not have time to focus on her own health as her team desperately converted surgical wards into respiratory units amidst the Covid emergency.
She has since been able to pass on some of her learnings to a nephew who was recently diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma, and her advice to others is clear: “The main message I have for anyone is that you have to listen to your body. For many people they will be fine, and I think it’s one of the best feelings you can get to be told nothing’s wrong. You’ve got to just make sure that you get seen to.”
Cancer takes so much from so many, this Daffodil Day we are taking back from cancer so that one day cancer can take no more.
You make that happen.
Contact the Irish Cancer Society Support Line
If you have worries or concerns about cancer, you can speak confidentially to an Irish Cancer Society Cancer Nurse through the Freephone Support Line on 1800 200 700.
Monday to Friday, 9.00am - 5.00pm
For more information
1800 200 700