Breast cancer survivor shares lessons learned
In 2007, Paula Nichols was enjoying life as a wife, mother of two and working as an elementary school music teacher. But even when cancer brought her life to a halt in September that year, she never felt sorry for herself.
“I never really questioned ‘Why me?’ because at the time it seemed like the thing. Everyone knew someone that had cancer,” Nichols said.
Doctors had discovered her cancer as a result of a regularly scheduled mammogram at MedWest-Haywood.
“It was just a little spot, but it was a very aggressive cancer,” Nichols said. “I was just very thankful that mine was caught early because if I hadn’t had my mammogram on time and waited even six more months, it could have been a totally different story,” she said.
She underwent a lumpectomy and began chemotherapy on Halloween day.
“I thought that would be the worst part of it — throwing up and losing my hair. I look back on it and think, ‘How silly was I?’” Nichols said.
Instead, the worst aspect of chemo was the fatigue that kept her in bed for days at a time, barely able to lift her head from the pillow.
When her chemo sessions were complete in March, she went on a trip to Disney World with her family and then began radiation treatment, which lasted until May. She was able to go back to work with the kids she loved so much months later, but going through breast cancer gave her a new perspective on life.
While most people asked her about her side effects or how she felt after beating breast cancer, a friend asked her a more poignant question: “What did you learn?”
It was at that moment that Nichols realized that part of being a breast cancer survivor is about sharing all the lessons she learned along the way.
First of all, she said, “I learned how good people are.”
She recalled the constant prayers from her church family at First Baptist Church in Waynesville and from her students at Jonathan Valley and
“I did feel those prayers. So I learned the power of prayer and the power of good people who are praying for you. That’s the most incredible resource we have is our prayer life and I don’t take that lightly. If I tell somebody I’m going to pray for them, I can tell you, I’m going to pray for them,” Nichols said.
The second thing she learned was to let go of the things she thought she could control and lean on God instead.
“We can’t control our lives. We think we can — we can make plans and we can make preparations and we can have hopes, but you know, fate jumps in there. God uses situations to teach us things. Now that I’ve gone through it and I can look at it as something in the past, I can honestly say that having cancer was a blessing,” Nichols said.
Finally, “I learned how wonderful my family was,” she said.
Her daughter, who was in sixth grade at the time, came home from school every day and asked how she could help her mom. Her son would sometimes just hold her hand and lie down next to her when she was in pain.
“I just learned not only to love my life but the people and the kids around me. I think God gave me that to remind me what I have,” she said.
More than anything, she learned the value of breast cancer screening.
When she was 35, she insisted on having her first mammogram, even though her doctor said she didn’t need one until she turned 40. Her baseline mammogram at that time came back normal. But by the time she turned 42, she had cancer.
That’s why Nichols is such a strong advocate for mammograms.
“Some doctors are now saying wait until you’re 50. There’s no way. I would be dead,” she said.
Six years have passed since her battle with breast cancer, but in the back of her mind she has always had a nagging feeling that it could happen again. She also knew that she was a carrier of the BRCA 1 gene, which increased the likelihood that she would be diagnosed again.
When a family member was diagnosed for the third time, Nichols took it as a sign from God that it was time to take preventative measures. So, over the summer, she made the decision to have a double mastectomy, which significantly decreases her chances of being diagnosed again.
Radiation caused severe damage to her tissue, which makes the reconstruction process very painful. But Nichols remains upbeat and optimistic.
“I’m going to get through this too, just like I got through the rest of it. I’m going to get all healed up and I have a wonderful plastic surgeon and I’m on my way to recovery once again,” she said.