Cancer survivor recalls battle

By: CJ Nichols Special to The News Messenger
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Editors’ note: Relay for Life will be held in Lincoln on May 17. During the weeks preceding the event, the News Messenger will be running stories written by cancer survivors. My name is CJ Nichols. I am a runner and a PE teacher at Glen Edwards Middle School. I have a family, three children, a husband and two dogs. I am a cancer survivor. My story begins after a run I took with the previous principal of my school, Mary Boyle. She noticed a red spot I had on my left thigh. “What is that?” she said. “You ought to get it checked out”. I looked down at my thigh and thought, yeah, something does look wrong there, but I didn’t do anything about it. Several months passed, and I thought often about what Mary Boyle had said. Should I be concerned? Then I noticed a brown spot on my left calf. Those of you who know me are probably wondering, which brown spot could that be, aren’t there about a million freckles down there? Well, one particular spot did look different and it had a raised bump to it. It also felt weird and sort of itchy. After running into Mary a few more times, and her relentless questions about my thigh, I did call the Kaiser Dermatology Department. “You have to have a referral from your primary care physician,” the receptionist replied. What!! I thought. I finally make the call, and this is the reply I get? After some more time passed and a referral was finally made, I saw the dermatologist. He took cultures of both spots and said he’d get back to me with the results. “Dear Mom, I am writing to tell you how much you mean to me. How much life you gave me and how much I’m going to miss you!! All I ever wanted was a daughter of my own so I could love her the way you love me. But it doesn’t matter anymore, I have cancer. I won’t be around much longer. Thank you for your love, your praise, and for being the best mom ever. Love, your daughter.” I was standing in the locker room at Glen Edwards Middle School between third and fourth periods when I got the call. “Is this Mrs. Nichols?” “Yes,” I said. “This is Dr. Henke. You have melanoma.” “I have what? Melanoma?” “Yes,” he said. “It is a serious matter and you’ll have to have extensive surgery. We need to book an appointment soon. Our office will be contacting you.” Tears sprang to my eyes. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I had sent my class to the Spirit Center so I had to hurry. Running blindly across the blacktop I stopped at my good friend Lori Reitman’s class. “I just found out I have cancer and I’m scared,” I blurted. She hugged me immediately and said, “Oh my God, it will be OK. Do you need me to take your class?” “No,” I said. “We’re playing volleyball, I need to be there.” My husband was on a 10-day hunting trip in Colorado, so I kept my silence at home. I looked up melanoma on the Internet. That wasn’t much help. I found out that it is the most serious type of skin cancer. That surgery most definitely had to be done and that a large part of my left thigh would need to be dug out. All the cancer and ¾ of the surrounding tissue needed to be removed. I was scared. If it has already spread into my lymph system, more trouble and complications can occur. The date was Nov. 4, 2006. One of the worst days of my life. Many doctor visits and tests later, my surgery was set up for Nov. 27, 2006. “Enjoy Thanksgiving with your family,” my surgeon said. “Why, because that’s the last one I’ll have with them?” I thought. “Oh, don’t be crazy,” everyone said. “You’ll be fine. You caught it early, it’s a piece of cake.” “Did I?” I wondered. “How long from the first time Mary urged me to get my legs checked did I finally do it? Hopefully, soon enough.” One of the tests I had to have was a mammogram. “We found some funny calcifications in both of your breasts,” my doctor informed me. “What!” I thought. “Not my breasts too.” I was scheduled to have a double breast biopsy on Dec. 4, 2006. Now I was really scared. Melanoma and breast cancer!! The day of the surgery dawned, as I knew it would. Before the actual surgery, I had to have a sentinel lymph node biopsy to see if the cancer had spread. They had to stick tiny needles into my skin and shoot blue dye up my leg into the sentinel lymph nodes. Results would be available in a few weeks. That was an extremely painful procedure. Glad they let me know beforehand. “Sorry, honey, this is going to hurt pretty bad,” they said. “Great!” The actual surgery went fine with all the pain medication they gave me and back home I went a few hours later. All I could remember was them asking me if I was getting drowsy. Then, them waking me up, and asking about the pain. “Does your leg hurt, Mrs. Nichols? Are you ready to go home, Mrs. Nichols?” “Sure I am. Thanks for everything. See you later!” It took awhile before I was feeling better. I mostly lay in bed and watched HGTV and the Learning Channel. I learned about decorating my home for mere pennies and how to look 10 years younger. I even sent my husband to Target to get me some make-up. Mascara? What’s that? He brought back an eyeliner pen. Oh well I can use that, too. On the next Monday, I went for my double breast biopsy. It was a long painful process. We got there at 8 a.m. and weren’t finished until noon. They had to put a needle into my breast and keep it in there and pull out some cells to look at under a microscope. If the fluid pulled out is clear, there is a good chance it’s not cancerous. If it’s cloudy or bloody, it may be cancer. Results would come at a later time. I soon went back to Glen Edwards and all my students. As much as I love TLC and HGTV, I love my job better. Besides, it was time for the kids to run their mile. They were all thrilled to see me of course. Ha! “Hey, we’re running a mile,” I announced. “Why didn’t you stay home and rest longer,” was their reply. “You shouldn’t rush your recovery.” They love the mile. Sure they do. It wasn’t long after returning to work that I found out all my tests were negative. My lymph nodes were free of cancer, the surgery was successful in removing all the melanoma, and the breast biopsy was normal. It was a long scary time with lots of ups and downs. If you ever think you may have a suspicious spot on your ski,n get it checked out immediately. It’s worth it. For more information, call Christina Breiner at 645-5298, e-mail or go online at