October is Australia’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an opportunity for us all to focus on breast cancer and its impact on those affected by the disease in our community. Breast cancer remains the most common cancer among Australian women (excluding non-melanoma skin cancer). Survival rates continue to improve in Australia with 89 out of every 100 women diagnosed with invasive breast cancer now surviving five or more years beyond diagnosis.
In support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and in honour of a very special person, we wanted to share with you all the story of Nikki Dwyer. A vibrant, beautiful and strong lady who lost her battle with cancer earlier this year.
Written by Lyn Swinburne, Breast Cancer Network Australia (BCNA) Founder, Republished with permission from BCNA.
I first met Nikki in 2006 when she was just 23 and a Law student at Monash University. We lived in the same Melbourne suburb and had a number of friends in common, although to be honest my friends were mostly friends of Dee, Nikki’s mother. After all, my own daughter, Eliza, was only one year younger.
She came into BCNA’s office to collect a My Journey Kit. She looked completely out of place – way too young to be dealing with the issues she was now confronting, and I remember Dee saying ‘If only it was me and not my daughter.’
I was immediately struck by her beautiful face, her disarming directedness, her intense interest to ‘know it all’ and even then, her naughty sense of humour. I might have also had more than an inkling of the courage and quiet determination we were to witness in spades throughout the years that followed.
At a time when she should have been letting loose, revelling in university parties, being silly and outrageous, she was facing bilateral mastectomy, chemotherapy and a future of uncertainty. At that time she said ‘I was depressed for all of a day and a half when I found out I had breast cancer, that was all it took me to realise if I wanted to get through this I had to be strong, I had to be ready to tackle it head on, with courage and determination. I soon realised that if I thought I was going to die, I was going to die.So I toughened up, tried to see the funny side in everything and got on with the job of having treatment.
I was not only worried about the standard fears associated with having breast cancer (dying, living, pain, getting sick, going bald and so forth) but so many other things as well. I finished chemotherapy and went back to work and university a week later. I was so sick of being sick, so tired of not being able to do what all my friends were doing. I wanted to regain my identity and life’.
Following her treatment, she waltzed back into our office, sporting extremely short hair which she’d dyed bright yellow. She was like a whirlwind – smart, funny, energetic, ‘out there’, committed to social justice issues and the under-dog and speaking up about breast cancer in young women.
She volunteered in BCNA’s office in Camberwell before she went back to work. She told us she loved the camaraderie of being with people who’d shared an experience with her. In reality, there was no-one there who’d actually had her unique experience, but she felt connected and was a passionate advocate.
She undertook many public speaking engagements for BCNA. Not one single person who heard Nikki’s story or who saw this small package of a gutsy young woman speak so honestly and candidly about her experiences with breast cancer, was unmoved in her presence. She told it as it was – the difficulties in seeing her Uni mates off partying without a care in the world and the pain when they didn’t really understand her situation. After all, how could they? The worry about whether she’d be able to have children down the track. The huge issue of what to do with her life to make sure it was meaningful, and full, and deeply satisfying and would make a real impact on others.
I recall her speaking one October at an annual Pink Ribbon breakfast, with more than 800 people in the room. She moved every single one, making her points with directness, honesty and enormous power. The Governor General, Quentin Bryce, was weeping openly, as were many of our political leaders of the day, utterly captivated by her story and her courage.
The other occasion that stands out for me was in 2010 when Shane Crawford first entered BCNA’s life. He was keen to undertake a personal physical challenge and to donate any funds he might raise to BCNA.
We were keen that this not be an empty gesture, merely a media stunt. We invited Shane to share lunch with a number of breast cancer survivors. There was a range of women in the room, including relatively recently diagnosed women and some with advanced disease. He was visibly moved with each story; none more so than Nikki’s.
I recall her explaining how infertility was a big issue for her and that she’d had eggs harvested in the hope that someday she’d be able to have children. He asked ‘You’ve had eggs taken?’ She replied, ‘Yep, I have. Actually they’re in the fridge at home and I have to be really careful after a big night out that I don’t come home and drink them down by mistake!’. He wasn’t really sure whether she was fair-dinkum or not, but one thing I do know is how stunned he was to hear Nikki’s story and how committed he became after that lunch to support BCNA and those affected by breast cancer.
Nikki made her way across to Perth in 2012 where she worked in the WA Aboriginal Legal Service and where later that year she met her husband-to-be, the gorgeous Tony Hager, and they were so happy.
She sent us reports from time to time and especially when she became pregnant, achieving that overwhelming lifetime ambition of hers to have children.
She wrote an article for our national magazine, The Beacon, saying
As I look down at my large belly I can see and feel our baby kicking, reminding me constantly that he is in there. I am 28 weeks pregnant. Not long to go now. Getting to just this point has been a long and intense experience. Soon, with lots of determination and the help of many, I will have fully realised my greatest but most fragile dream”.Nikki was told the worst news possible soon after baby Humphrey’s birth – that her cancer had returned in its full force. She was devastated; she had even more to live for now. Again, she faced her situation head-on. She moved back to Melbourne where her support networks were strongest, where Dee and her family could help care for Humphrey. She ensured she had the best medical care and advice, she asked her medical oncologist to ‘throw everything at me’, she kept fit and attended gym, she ate healthy foods and she enjoyed her time with Tony and her son. She was a realist throughout, but she hoped she might get to see Humphrey off to school.
Four weeks ago, she and Tony were married. Wedding photos reflect the joy and exuberance of the day – two young people so much in love, devoted to each other and to the son they’d created. She’s there looking magnificently elegant and stunningly beautiful on her father’s arm walking into the ceremony, she’s there being kissed by Tony under boughs of stunning flowers overhead, she’s there on the dancefloor dancing wildly and unfettered; she’s there amongst her close girlfriends drinking in the love and support they have for one another; she’s there with the widest grin holding Humphrey – almost a year old – and being adored by her new husband.
And now she’s gone. What courage and determination in the face of everything that could be thrown at her, and was! What a life! What a loss!