Breast cancer survivor Nina Kikani was getting ready for work one spring morning, just weeks before her oldest son’s wedding, when she discovered a lump on the left side of her chest. In just a moment, and when she least expected it, Nina’s life as she knew it began to change in a drastic way. Looking back, Nina remembers feeling sick during her visit to India a couple months beforehand and had an inkling that the “‘cancer was growing in [her] then.” Yet, hindsight is 20/20, and she had no way of knowing at the time what the future was about to have in store for her. Nina was completely and utterly “slapped by cancer,” as she said it best, and her life was turned upside down in the blink of an eye.
When she felt the lump, Nina knew that something was wrong and scheduled a mammogram that very day. Later that evening, she was informed that a biopsy would be needed for further inspection of her breast tissue, as the mammogram revealed tissue that was “highly suspicious of cancer”. Nina was diagnosed with breast cancer in April of 2000 and, at the time, she had absolutely no idea what treatment for her “poorly differentiated infiltrating ductal carcinoma” would entail. She had no knowledge about radiation or chemotherapy or what the experience of going through a surgery as invasive as her mastectomy would be like. She often found herself asking that ubiquitous question which never seemed to have an answer — “why me?”
Even though she was afraid and had no idea what was in store for her and her body, the first thing that went through Nina’s mind upon being diagnosed was that she needed to do everything right so that she could be strong and healthy in time for her son’s wedding. Accordingly, at her surgeon’s recommendation, Nina went through with a mastectomy as soon as possible. The lump was found on a Thursday and she went into surgery the following Monday. As Nina was postmenopausal at the time of her diagnosis, her doctor advised that it was all right to postpone all chemotherapy treatments until after the wedding. “By the grace of God,” as Nina made sure to emphasize when telling me her story, Nina was able to then “put cancer on the backburner” for the next month and celebrate her son’s wedding just as planned that May. Yet, her road to remission was far from over and the hardest part of her treatment was just around the corner.
Just days after all matrimonial festivities had come to a happy end, Nina went in for her second cancer-related operation. This time, to get a chemo port inserted under her clavicle. The next morning, she went in for her first of eight chemotherapy sessions. From losing her waist-long hair — to getting so ill from chemo — that she was hospitalized for weeks. The next several months proved incredibly difficult for Nina and her family. Chemotherapy is incredibly aggressive on the entire body, not only cancer cells. Nina felt that everything, good and bad, was being wiped from her body. Each chemo session would last five hours in the hospital and, as chemotherapy kills white blood cells which provide immunity from external pathogens and disease, Nina would have to spend the next three days in isolation at her home.
Gradually, as she progressed through the treatment, Nina lost nearly all her hair. For Nina and her loved ones, this was particularly difficult as all those who had ever known Nina had known her with a thick, long, shiny black braid. The first time any of her friends or loved ones saw her after starting chemotherapy — with her head bare or in a wig — there would often be tears. Even with a wig, Nina had a hard time feeling like herself as chemotherapy caused her to lose her full head of hair. Yet, the unwavering love and kindness she felt from her husband, who took time off work to be by her side, and her friends, who often brought over dinner and gave her company whenever needed, helped Nina remain positive and true to herself throughout her immensely difficult battle with breast cancer. Nina spoke time and time again about how she has been “blessed with great friends and a loving family” that took care of her every step of the way and helped her feel beautiful through it all.
No matter how difficult things got, Nina never let cancer stop her from living life the way she wanted. She went into work every week throughout her chemotherapy treatment (except for the days she was immuno-compromised, of course) and never lost the energy to be the self-proclaimed “cleaning freak” at home that she has always been. After finishing her eight chemotherapy sessions in November of 2000 Nina was ecstatic to go back to life as she knew it and, within a few months, she was rejoiced to see her hair growing back strong and healthy as usual.
Yet, once again, cancer had things in store for Nina that she was never expecting. For a while, things seemed to be fully in the clear and Nina was beginning to view her battle with breast cancer as a thing of the past. Yet, in 2011, a routine mammogram showed an abnormality in the tissue of Nina’s right breast.
Her doctor in 2000 had advised Nina against getting a bilateral mastectomy (the removal of tissue from both breasts), but this left her right breast vulnerable to cancer. After having a biopsy taken on the abnormal tissue in her right breast Nina was told by her doctor that she would need to have her second mastectomy. So, 11 years after her first operation, Nina returned to the surgeon who had operated on her back in 2000 for her second mastectomy. Though this surgery was just as intensive as the first one, Nina felt much calmer and better prepared knowing that she had undergone the same procedure before and was all the more stronger for it.
Today, after undergoing two mastectomies, two breast reconstruction operations, eight rounds of chemotherapy, and countless doctors’ appointments and medical procedures, Nina is a healthy, happy, cancer-free grandmother of three young boys. Nina and her husband are retired and spend their time traveling, gardening, and spending time with friends and their children/grandchildren.
Nina’s advice to all women is to make sure to have routine mammograms as often as advised and check your bodies for changes or lumps of any kind. These things allow us to catch any signs of breast cancer early, and the earlier this cancer is caught, the more successful and complication-free recovery is likely to be. For women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer Nina knows firsthand how difficult this news is to accept, but advises women to be open with their friends and loved ones about the challenges they are facing, the things that they are feeling as they undergo treatment, and anything else that comes up throughout the battle with breast cancer. There is no shame in talking about mastectomies, having to wear a wig, harsh side effects of chemotherapy, or anything else related to treatment of breast cancer or any other disease. At the end of the day, no illness is anyone’s fault, and the kindness, understanding, and empathy of the people in your life is really what gets you through.
Finally, Nina’s message to all is that breast cancer is not always the end of the world; it is curable, so, “be strong, be positive, be active, and most importantly, have faith in God, for he will take you through … life goes forward, enjoy your time because you only have one life, and no one knows when it’s going to end.”