October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Today we share a special interview about one mother’s journey with cancer while raising her babies. Nikki Leigh McKean is a 38-year-old mom of two, and one of the most kind and inspiring humans you’ll meet. Her first cancer diagnosis – cervical cancer – came just months after giving birth to her second baby, only 15 months apart from her first. Less than two years later, she discovered she had breast cancer, and underwent a double mastectomy.
As new mothers, we exist in a space that often leads us to the edges of our physical, emotional and mental limits. It’s hard to imagine what this space looks like when you’re fighting cancer. Nikki is a photographer, a restaurateur, the creator of the Let’s Radiate Project + one beautiful badass mama. This is her story:
Tell us about the moment you knew something wasn’t right & your diagnosis:
The first time I was diagnosed with cancer was in the summer of July, 2015. They had been following me closely during both pregnancies for HSIL (high-grade squamous intraepithelial lesion) of my cervix. We knew that it had come and gone with my first pregnancy and that there was a small chance that they could turn into cancer when I was pregnant with Sofie.
Cervical cancer is typically slow-growing and the doctors encouraged us to continue with the healthy pregnancy, as there were plans to cut some of my cervix out which would lead to me possibly not being able to successfully carry a baby full-term.
My pregnancy with Sofie was amazing. I had gestational diabetes with both of them (insulin injections and all) but other than that I loved being pregnant. I had a lot of doctor’s appointments though, and they seemed to increase towards the last few months before Sofie was born. There were many raised eyebrows, but nothing was said. After all, there was nothing they could do since I was carrying the baby full term.
I had a sense from the team that something was wrong and I was right because two months after Sofie was born, I was diagnosed with Stage 2b cervical cancer and underwent chemotherapy and intense radiation treatment.
It took a long time after my last radiation appointment to start feeling ‘my new normal.’ The fatigue is like nothing I had ever experienced. Thankfully I had never experienced sleep deprivation, as both babies were good sleepers, but this chronic fatigue felt like a train had run me over and I could just shut my eyes and never wake back up. Just as I started to regain my strength and get back into work, we decided to open a new restaurant. At the time, my gut screamed ‘NO.’
I remember saying to Victor, “I don’t know how to explain this, but I think we shouldn’t do anything for a bit. I think I still really need to time to heal.” But it had been almost two years and I was ‘feeling better’ overall and we were all starting to get back into the swing of things. We wanted our life back and we love opening restaurants, so we decided to take on the project.
Two days before Cafe Cancan was to open its doors, in May 2017, Sofie ran into my right breast in the morning and just 20 minutes later at the park I was bleeding through my right nipple and it was a considerable amount. It didn’t hurt. I didn’t even notice. It was a lady in the park that came running over to ask if I was ok.
As soon as I looked down, I knew in my gut that it wasn’t good. I remember when I phoned my family doctor and they said they didn’t have an appointment for a couple of weeks I said directly to the receptionist on the phone: “This can’t wait – it’s an emergency.”
Less than two years from my first cancer diagnosis, I was diagnosed with Invasive Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS) Breast Cancer, with a small component testing positive in one of my lymph nodes. They explained the way the DCIS had spread that they couldn’t save any of my breast. A complete mastectomy on the right side was the only option.
You opted not to have reconstructive surgery after your double mastectomy. Tell us about that decision. How did your family and friends react?
Everything happened SO FAST. I was sent to Plastics just 45 minutes after I was officially diagnosed with breast cancer. When I was asked in that appointment: “So, what size would you like to be?” I felt sick to my stomach. The reality of what was happening was unbelievable and at the time almost comical.
The medical team really wanted me to keep the ‘healthy’ breast, but I knew that the only option for me was to take them both off and put absolutely nothing back in. I understood that it seemed drastic – but so are two different cancer diagnoses within two years. In the grand scheme of life, I understood that I am more than just this body and my breasts don’t define me as a person and I knew I would be comfortable with a flat chest.
Trying to convince friends, family and the team of health practitioners was not so easy. Most everyone was concerned that I would regret my decision and have a hard time dealing with my ‘new body,’ but I knew in my heart of hearts that it was the best and only decision for me.
Every time I thought of all the other choices, I felt a terrible sensation in my body. When I thought about the double mastectomy and a flat chest, I was definitely saddened by the reality, but felt the most light with that decision overall.
How do feel now about the choice?
I love my flat chest. I have a lot of scars from many surgeries and this just adds to the story. The hardest part about the double mastectomy for me is not how it looks. It’s the chronic pain from the scar tissue that I deal with. I had major complications after surgery. It took me seven months to be able to pick up my kids and I’m still healing. I see a special massage therapist to work on the scar tissue to move it around and it’s extremely painful, but I know that it’s all part of the healing process.
“Sofie ran into my right breast in the morning and just 20 minutes later at the park I was bleeding through my right nipple and it was a considerable amount. It didn’t hurt. I didn’t even notice. It was a lady in the park that came running over to ask if I was ok.”
Often people don’t realize that breast cancer affects so many young women. Tell us about your work to raise awareness with Rethink Breast Cancer + Knixwear.
Working with Rethink Breast Cancer & Knixwear has been an honour. Rethink is empowering young people worldwide who are affected by breast cancer through campaigns such as Support the Girls and to be a body-positive influential advocate ‘after breast cancer’ is very empowering.
Both companies with their bold approaches are willing to spark conversations about real life matters that need to be talked about and confronted head on. I think we need to continue to carve the path in innovative thinking and awareness for all topics, not just breast cancer.
Being a mom of young children is exhausting and challenging. What has it been like parenting while focusing on your own recovery and healing?
It feels like I’m doing my PhD on Life.
Personally, I’ve never been so challenged in my life, but I also have never been so ready to listen. In some ways, I feel like I’ve been running from the cops for years, and they finally caught me up against the fence, but this time I’ve got my arms up in the air. I surrender – I’ll do anything you tell me to do – just set me FREE!!!
I understand now that you can’t just keep running around without someone or something coming to find you. Trust me, life will keep coming back for more if you don’t surrender and ‘listen up’ – I’ve had to learn that the hard way.
Trying to heal properly while parenting is challenging. It has tested my mind and body like nothing else. Trying to heal and create an environment that is nurturing and quiet and then add in two screaming toddlers.
What’s the secret you ask? Yoga. Meditation. Daily practice. Self-care. Take time for myself to do absolutely nothing. All the things that most mothers find extremely difficult to do on a good day. After my double mastectomy I couldn’t physically lift the girls for seven months – it was torture. I had to re-learn how to be ‘present’ with them and available to them in a different capacity.
I now use the girls as a tool to teach me instead of the other way around. Children are so intuitive and creative in the way they experience the world, so I take more time to absorb as much of that magic from them as possible. It’s not always easy to be more of a conscious parent, it takes a lot more time and a hell of a lot more patience, but man is it worth it.
How do you talk to your daughters about it?
Openly and honestly. Don’t kid yourselves – kids know what’s up. They know better than we do. Even if they are too young to understand the full context, they understand vibration and energy. We’ve been open and honest about everything from the beginning. Sofie will often scream out at the park: “My mommy has NO BOOBIES!!!!!!!!!!!!”
One of Charlotte’s favourite books right now is ’Nowhere Hair,’ a book about a girl who knows her mother’s hair is missing. In trying to find it, the story reveals that her mother, although going through cancer treatment, is still silly, attentive, fashionable, happy, and yes, sometimes very tired and cranky.
Although I did not do chemo this time and I did not lose my hair, she understands clearly in the book that this ‘momma’ needs to ‘take rest’ and ‘heal’ and she also asks if this momma has ‘boo boos’ like me and if the doctor had to cut off her boobies to make her better. Some days pass and no questions arise… other days pass and it feels like the entire day is Groundhog Day answering the same questions cool and calmly over and over again. Sometimes she asks me when the doctor will cut her boobies off and if it would hurt. Do they use scissors or a sharp knife?
I can’t always guarantee I have the right answers, but I try to be honest and try to shine bright for these tiny human beings that have so many questions even though they are 3 and 4 years old. I am reminded that children are the voice that we adults learn to keep quiet. These tiny humans are smarter than we know. One thing that stands out the most is their incredible ability to love and their beautiful compassion for others.
“It has tested my mind and body like nothing else. Trying to heal and create an environment that is nurturing and quiet and then add in two screaming toddlers.”
Your journey with cancer inspired a special project: Let’s Radiate. Tell us about the inspiration for the project and how you hope it will impact people who participate.
This project came to life while I was waiting for an appointment with my radiologist to discuss treatment. As I sat waiting for the nurse to call me, a deep dark despair set in as I looked around the basement floor of the cancer hospital. I was overwhelmed by everything around me – the gurgling fish tank, the blaring newscast on the TV, the depressing and terrifying feeling of being surrounded by people really suffering. A deep sense of deja-vu set in and in the same moment of dark sadness of “what’s to come’ came an immediate and visceral reaction of “how am I going to get through this?“ I knew right at that moment that I needed to find a way to bring light and love to my healing journey and to share that with others.
After the appointment, I started brainstorming all of the things and people that I feel inspired by and created a vision board. I called my friend and asked her if she could help me bring all the things I had furiously thrown together in a couple of hours to life. She came over to the studio and we shared, created, doodled. Over the next few days I spent time meditating and refining my vision, imagining what would make my heart happy during this difficult time and how I could share this with the world. What would help me heal and what I would want for others – to radiate their own love on themselves and others.
The ‘Let’s Radiate’ Project came to life quickly – we created a deck of cards that brought together all of the ways that I could imagine making me – and others – happy. These cards are divided into 3 categories – Daily Activities, Inspirational Quotes and Bonus Activities – to help find light and love, to find time for self-reflection and mindfulness.
We all have a responsibility to contribute beauty and light to the world. Unimaginably beautiful things are happening everyday even in the chaos and darkness and this experience taught me that I am responsible for doing all I can to contribute beauty.
You’ve always been a positive person – inspiring others + shining a bright light into the world long before your first cancer diagnosis. How has your journey with cancer changed your perspective?
The past three years have changed me into more of an authentic version of myself and what I believe to be true. I now use the girls as a tool to teach me instead of the other way around. For as long as I can remember my mother always said… “you can be anything you want to be but the most important is to be yourself. When you are your own authentic self the world will be sure to see your bright light!” So it was always in my radar to ‘shine bright’ – best advice from my mother that never leaves me. So now, I practice that and I see the positive impact it has on the girls when we are honest with who we are and trying the best we can at the time with that knowledge we have.
What are the most important things young women should be doing regularly to check for breast and cervical health concerns?
Being diagnosed with cancer in your 30s is considered young, but it happens. You need to listen to your body and continue to follow up with your regular doctor visits. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re too young to have cancer. In the last 3 years I have spoken to so many young women that were misdiagnosed because of their age. You MUST advocate for yourself and if you need a second opinion go and get one.
Make sure you visit your GP yearly to do all of the necessary screening. I’ve been having a PAP test every year since I was 18, but some women I speak to tell me that doctors are now recommending every three years. I recommend to do the testing that you are comfortable but take it from me – I would do a PAP every year if you can. Early detection is key. In most cases cervical cancer can be prevented through early detection and treatment of abnormal cell changes that occur in the cervix years before cervical cancer develops.
I think we need to change the ‘screening’ process for young women in Canada regarding breast cancer. More and more young women are being diagnosed ‘out of the blue’ with no other cancers related to family members and it’s terrifying.
What is your message to anyone reading this who is living this experience now, or supporting a loved one through this experience?
Listen to your body and support it in every way possible, as it’s your temple. Fuel your body with healthy foods and drink water that it needs to thrive. I don’t drink anymore – my hormone changes from treatments just don’t allow for it and to be honest I don’t miss it because I feel great, the last thing I have time for is a hangover. I have also created new boundaries for myself with my personal and work life – I don’t do things that I don’t enjoy or don’t serve me. I’m busy with things and people I love and all the other moments are for rest, healing and self-care to fuel up for more of the people and things I love. Seems simple, but as mothers we forget the self- care aspect of life. It’s absolutely necessary- you can’t expect to give, give, give without re-fuelling your own self-care tank AND you can’t wait for someone else to make that magically happen for you. You have to learn how to ask for help to make it happen and then you MUST accept that help with grace. Not easy but you’ll get the hang of it eventually.
What do you wish people knew about helping a friend or family member through cancer and treatment?
To be fully present and live with an open heart to stay connected to the world around you. Be still. Be quiet. And most of all – it’s no one’s responsibility to fix or change anything – sometimes the most important thing is to sit with what is and acknowledge the absolute mess that a cancer diagnosis brings to families lives. We are so quick to ‘fix’ or resume normal activities within our busy lives that we miss out on what is truly happening and I think the true healing is when our insides feel heard.
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