BY SEÁN P. FEENY
NIKKI Bradley (27) from Letterkenny has embarked on a journey to get as fit as physically possible, which is nothing but inspiring when you read about the adversity this young woman has already overcome.
Her medical history is one in single figures world-wide. When Nikki was just 16 she was diagnosed with an extremely rare form of bone cancer, Ewing’s Sarcoma, which usually affects children and young adults. It was Christmas 2002 when Nikki was diagnosed and in January she began undergoing chemo and radiotherapy.
“I then had to go to the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore in the UK to have my tumour removed as no surgeon in Ireland felt comfortable to do so.”
The tumour removal was a success, but as the surgeons had to remove a ‘clear margin around the tumour to ensure that all cancer cells were gone a lot of muscle and nerve damage was caused and Nikki suffered from chronic pain after the all clear.
In 2006 Nikki was still suffering extreme pain in her right hip which was crumbling due to the effects of the radiotherapy. Meanwhile, hip fragments were breaking off and leaning on her nerves.
As Nikki was also suffering from lymphoedema, which caused extreme swelling to her right leg, doctors were unable to do proper X-rays to see that her right hip was crumbling. Nikki spent a full year in pain, undiagnosed.
“For a few years my hip was fine. Life was back to normal, I had even started modelling, which was a huge achievement for me, feeling confident enough to let people see the scars. I was healing and all was good. Then, in the space of a single day, I ended up in hospital on morphine. The radiotherapy had completely destroyed my hip.
“It was crumbling and pressing on large nerves in my leg which caused absolutely crippling pain. It took doctors a full year, and a 10 week hospital stay, to decide that a total right hip replacement was needed. So in 2007, I underwent my first hip replacement. Again, the operation was a success so life continued.
“I decided to take a year out and go to Australia in 2011 with my friends, but I went with the knowledge that things were not right with my hip. Four weeks into my trip I was admitted to hospital with a suspected clot in my leg, but after further testing, specialists were satisfied that it was not a clot. Turns out it was a massive infection in my hip. I spent 10 weeks in a Perth hospital while they took out my infected hip and put in a temporary replacement. I flew home and was admitted straight back into hospital from the airport. The temporary replacement (spacer) was meant to come out in January 2012 but a fall at Christmas landed me back in hospital with a snapped femur.”
Unfortunately her second hip replacement was not a success. “The prosthesis was custom made for me in England and was designed to fuse with my natural bone. But unfortunately that didn’t happen. The radiotherapy had killed all the muscle and bone around the site of the tumour thus eliminating any chance of fusing. This means that I cannot have another replacement and have been left with a loose hip and a considerable leg length discrepancy. I now walk with crutches and will remain on these for life.
“At the time the consultant explained it to me by saying it was like trying to throw seeds onto a wooden floor and expecting them to grow,” said Nikki.
But instead of being negative, Nikki has decided she will deal with the fact that she will never walk again without the assistance of crutches and rather than feel sorry for herself she would try and find people in the unique situation as herself.
“I made a decision a long time ago to remain positive and thankfully I have never regretted that decision. Everything I have been through has made me the person I am today. It has made me determined to prove to people that I can still do all the things they can do.”
Nikki came across the Ewing’s Sarcoma Research Trust, a UK-based charity set up by Matt Shortt who was diagnosed with Ewing’s in November 2007 and underwent fourteen cycles of chemotherapy and a below-knee amputation of his right leg in March 2008.
Two years after the completion of Matt’s treatment (October 2010), he suffered a relapse and has undergone further intensive chemotherapy and surgery, this time to his lung.
While receiving his second course of treatment that he decided he needed to do something positive to tackle this disease. So in February 2011, the idea was discussed with a number of healthcare professionals and other charities, resulting in a Board of Trustees ‘volunteering’ to make Matt’s idea and vision a reality.
Matt ended up featuring Nikki’s story on his website which, she said, was a ‘great personal’ honour to her.
“The fact that I chose to support a UK-based charity shows how little people even know about Ewing’s in this country,” said Nikki.
“At the start of the summer I began to organising a lot of fund-raising, but it got too much and I realised I was out of my depth and lost a bit of confidence, but rather than not doing anything at all, I decided I would focus on creating awareness.”
Nikki was inspired by friends such as Lorraine Boyce and Emma Boylan who kept themselves fit and healthy and she was motivated to get fit herself and by doing so inspire others.
Nikki approached Michael Black of Optimal Fitness in Letterkenny to see if he would be interested in helping her gain a good level of fitness.
“I have so many disabilities, I will be on crutches for the rest of my life, but my motto is if I can physically do it, I will do it. At the moment we are trying to get me to a normal level of strength as I have lost so much strength and muscle on my right side.”
Nikki created a blog and Twitter account and is about to set up a Facebook page. She has begun making weekly videos cataloguing her progress.
“I want to break down the barrier between fitness and disability for any types of disability. I would love to enter some type of competition, but there aren’t many I could enter so Michael said I should set up my own competitions and goals. We’re still in discussion, but it could be everything from a sponsored cycle to climbing Errigal.
“My friend Lorraine Boyce is my physiotherapist and she has had to devise her own therapies for me as there are no case studies.
“Between her and Michael’s help, I am doing things I thought I would never ever be able to do and if I can inspire just one or two people by doing all this I would be very happy.
“It’s all very new to me as I have never been able to do these things before, but it is giving me a lot of confidence. And with Michael and Lorraine’s guidance the sky is the limit.I have also received a lot of support from my family and friends and I don’t know where I would be without them,” she said.
Another issue that is very important to Nikki is raising awareness of the aftermath and effects that radiotherapy has on your body.
“People hear about cancer all the time, but they rarely hear about the aftermath. Nobody tells you what lies ahead of you after the radiotherapy.
“I want to make people aware that it is important you ask these questions when you are first diagnosed and speaking to your surgeon. Don’t leave the questions until after.”
Nikki said she has received a lot of great response recently and following an interview on Highland Radio met another Donegal woman who had Ewing’s Sarcoma and she wants to keep continuing her new journey to inspire other people.
Follow Nikki’s inspiring journey on her blog