Breast Cancer Warrior
My name is Nikki Pennel
How did you begin your journey?
In September 2017, my personal trainer finally convinced me to enter my first ever fitness bikini competition. In reality, the convincing took only a month, but stepping on stage in a tiny bikini was a country mile outside of my comfort zone. I was too shy to even tell my family (even at age 41, with a professional career behind me, I didn’t want to disappoint them!)
With my first competition just under a month away, my body had leaned out beautifully, so much so, that the lump I found in my breast one day when getting undressed after work, was a sudden and awful surprise.
I panicked. I immediately went for a mammogram, but was told not to worry: “most women your age have fibrous lumps like this, come back in 6 months.” I didn’t think much more about that lump, I was lulled by the confidence of the radiologist. So I got on stage in my tiny bikini (and loved it) and didn’t look back.
Then in February 2018, I decided to get a second opinion. This was only because I was considering anti-aging medication to help with my energy levels - my doctor warned me that the type of medication could be dangerous for people with cancer. That lump was at the back of my mind. I called the radiology practice, but was given such a hard time for “coming back too early”. I almost gave up, but was encouraged by my partner to get a second opinion elsewhere. This time I went in asking for a biopsy straight away and the radiologist was far more cautious and prepared to listen. Mammogram. Sonar. MRI. Then finally the life-defining biopsy.
Monday, 12 March 2018
One thing I’ve learnt is that it’s never a good thing when your radiologist calls you first thing on a Monday morning. From that moment on, my partner and I were literally whipped into Cancer World. By that evening we were sitting in front of an absolutely phenomenal breast surgeon, who took into consideration that I was prepping for another fitness bikini competition in May. The next day we were in and out of another amazing doctor’s office: my plastic surgeon.
The night before my surgery, I bought a box of plaster of paris, in a last minute flight of fancy to immortalise my original “A cups” before the mastectomy. After properly destroying the kitchen with I would like to call my “creative energy” (plaster of paris everywhere), my partner and I went out for a “farewell dinner” for my breasts. It was a bitter sweet evening. I was hard not to feel sad, despite knowing that my breasts were trying to kill me.
The next day I was in surgery. I think I am the only patient who has ever taken her show bikini to the hospital and into surgery with her – my surgeons wanted to make sure that any scars wouldn’t impact me competing in the future. (I got some very strange looks from the nurses and the porters that day!).
What type of cancer were you diagnosed with?
I was diagnosed with Stage 1A DCIS – breast cancer. For those ladies who have walked this path, my cancer ER+/PR+, HER-.
What treatment did you undergo?
I initially underwent a double mastectomy and immediate reconstruction. Although I was not considered a typical candidate for chemotherapy based on my initial histopathology of my cancer, an Oncotype Dx test recommended chemotherapy as my cancer was likely to recur.
I started the “Red Devil” (Adriamycin) in late July 2018 and completed my last chemotherapy treatment for my Stage 1 breast cancer in December 2018.
Unfortunately in April 2020, after one of my usual check-ups with my oncologist, we discovered that what I thought was acid reflux was actually a recurrence of my breast cancer. A PET scan confirmed that my breast cancer had metastasised to my liver, lungs and bones. (I clearly never do anything half measured!).
How long have you been in remission?
Unfortunately as I now have Stage IV breast cancer, I will never be in true remission. My cancer is incurable. I am learning to live alongside my cancer and the treatments that come with it. I am currently back in chemotherapy under the guidance of my brilliant oncologist who has been given the strict instructions to make sure the statistics never apply to me!
What or who gave you the courage to fight?
Some people turn 40 and have a midlife crisis. I was lucky. I found that turning 40 brought me a sudden awareness of how fantastic this life is. It didn’t happen purely by chance – exercise was the catalyst. I started exercising regularly just before my 40th birthday and in just a few months of regular training I found a completely new and powerful mindset. It was this mindset that helped me stick the middle finger to cancer.
I couldn’t have gotten this far on personal mindset alone, however. There have been tough days and I am even more lucky with the fantastic support system that I have surrounding me. My partner should be inducted into knighthood, with how he has supported me at every doctor’s appointment, every chemo session, every moment in this very long journey. I am incredibly blessed to have found this angel on earth and to have him love me. My parents and family have also been an amazing support to me (although I hate to have caused them so much worry). I have also been blessed with amazing friends and work colleagues who have all gone above and beyond in supporting me and spoiling me.
What advice do you have for cancer sufferers?
Exercise can be your friend. If you are not completely physically debilitated by your cancer or your treatment, speak to your oncologist about how you can incorporate exercise into your treatment regime. If you are able, get a qualified personal trainer to help you with a graduated exercise program (provided your oncologist agrees).
Don’t be afraid to ask your doctors questions. Take a notebook with you to every doctor’s appointment to help you remember your questions and jot down the answers. The trauma or having cancer and the treatment itself interferes with memory (you may be familiar with chemobrain) - your notebook will be your second best friend.
Nikki takes Monty Python’s advice to
“Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” very seriously.
Nikki is an Attorney, a WFF Pro Bikini Athlete and Stage IV Breast Cancer Warrior!