Against all odds:
The signs that something was wrong started to show up in June of 2005. I was heavily into my training for IMW (Ironman Wisconsin) when I noticed that I was beginning to gain weight. I also found that swallowing was becoming increasingly difficult as well. I was determined to complete my second IM so through dedication and commitment, I decided that I owed it to myself to see this event through. I put my concerns behind me and finished training and eventually competed in the IMW.
On the day of my second IM, I was already eighteen pounds heavier, but I was determined to finish this race. I was well aware that something was wrong, but I couldn’t lose all of the hard training that I had put in for this event. The race was even more difficult this time because I was unable to eat properly and my body was beginning to shut down. I was able to finish the race, but it was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do and all the while I knew that something was wrong.
I finished the race that day, but waited another two weeks to call the doctor. During my appointment, I sat at the table waiting for the doctor. So many thoughts began to race through my mind, but my biggest concern was how I could have put on so much weight. Doctor Barb came in after a few minutes of waiting. We initially spoke about my weight gain, IM, and a few other things…just some background information and small talk. As Doctor Barb was examining my neck, I could see the expression on her face and I felt some hesitation as she finished the exam. I asked her what was wrong, but she didn’t respond with any answer except that she needed someone else to come in and feel a large lump that was on my thyroid. I sat there thinking, “WHAT!!!,” but waited for the second doctor to come in. As soon as the second doctor came in, I could see everything on their faces. I watched their faces for a few moments, but then the words came out…the words that left me stunned. “You need to be seen by a specialist at the downtown clinic. I will call for an appointment right away.”
Two days later, I found myself sitting in yet another doctor’s office all by myself. I remember thinking, “What could this be?” Doctor Asp walked in and asked me a few questions and then followed up with yet another exam. After he finished his exam, he spoke to me about an extremely large lump on my thyroid gland in my neck. He went through what it felt like and then said that we needed to schedule a biopsy as soon as possible. The next question stunned me…. “Can we do that right away today?” I consented for the biopsy and within ten minutes I was lying down looking at a huge needle that was going to be stuck into my neck. I tried to stay as calm and relaxed as possible throughout the procedure. This is where all of my training came in handy. I was able to reflect on all that I have done and the rituals that I go through as I am racing in order to stay calm and focused.
After the procedure was done, Dr. Asp and I sat and talked for a few minutes. He told me that he wasn’t 100% positive, but he felt as though it was thyroid cancer. At that exact moment, all I could do was sit back and cry. Thoughts began rushing through my mind again. I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. I remember thinking, “I have two boys and I am going through a divorce. What am I going to do?” Deep down in my heart, I knew that the test results were going to come back positive for thyroid cancer. To this day, I truly believe that Dr. Asp felt the same way. At the end of our conversation, Dr. Asp asked if I was able to return to the hospital later that day. It was 1:21 in the afternoon and I knew that I had to pick up the boys from school and take my oldest son, Tyler, to his job. I asked him if he could just call me if needed to, I knew that I couldn’t take any more time away from the boys. Dr. Asp was okay with calling me when the results came back. I kept my phone close to me for the rest of the afternoon. At 5:28, my phone began to ring. I knew right away that it was Gundersen Lutheran Hospital and I just knew what was going to be said on the other side of the phone. I answered the phone, “Danniela Nichols?” I heard. I said, “Yes.” Dr. Asp stated who he was and then immediately said that he had some news for me and asked if I was sitting down. I told him I wasn’t, but asked him to proceed with his finding. Dr. Asp confirmed during that phone call that I did in fact have thyroid cancer and that they would need to do surgery right away. He asked if November 3rd would work for me. I was in a state of shock. I knew what the answer was, but I was stunned. I agreed to have surgery on the 3rd of November. After the conversation with Dr. Asp was over, I sat down and began to cry again. I didn’t know how I was going to be able to tell my boys that I had cancer. Tyler, my oldest, was only sixteen and Landen was just eight. They were so young.
I am fortunate to have such amazing friends and family that have stood by me through so much. My friend Erik saw what was going on and he came over and helped me explain what was going on with the boys. Erik sat and held my boys and hugged them while I called some of my family members to let them know what was happening. Everyone came over to my house that night. I still remained shocked and confused. I kept thinking, “How could this be?” I had already dealt with cancer once in my life- at the ripe age of 21, I was diagnosed with cervical cancer and had to go through multiple freezing treatments in order to get rid of the cancer. I then had follow up appointments every three to six months for the following two years after that.
I knew that I had to find a way to show my boys that this didn’t bother me and that I was strong. I wanted them to know that I could still take care of them no matter what happened. So many ideas raced through my head, but in the end, we came up with something that allowed so many to “ride” along the journey with me. We organized a huge bike ride from my house to the hospital the morning of my surgery. Thirty amazing people showed up with some coffee, cookies, hugs, and support. I desperately wanted to keep this positive for both my boys as well as myself.
Tyler rode his bike right alongside me. Multiple times throughout the twenty mile bike ride, Tyler would whisper, “Mom, everything’s going to be okay.” I always told him, “Yes, it will be.” I would never let anything stand in the way as I cried to myself while I rode my bike to the hospital. I knew it was going to be a long road ahead….I had cancer, I was going through a divorce, it all seemed so surreal. I knew though, I had to take care of my pride and joy- my boys, as I was getting back on my feet and starting my fight against this beast. I remained positive (I am well known for my positivity and energy) as I went into the hospital with my friends and our bikes. The nurses couldn’t believe their eyes as I came in and told them I was coming in for surgery that morning. The receptionist immediately commented, “In the thirty plus years I have worked here, I have never seen anything like this.” I beamed from ear to ear.
As they prepped me for surgery, I began to cry again. Tyler gave me a hug and a kiss and several of my family members did the same. I remember my family saying that they were going to take my bike to a friend’s house to insure that I wouldn’t be trying to ride it until the doctor gave me the official okay to ride again. All I could think was, “Oh Gosh, I’m going to be starting training for my next Ironman Wisconsin (2006) as soon as this is done!!!”
After this, everything happened so quickly. Surgery was done and I was in the recovery room trying to wake up. They warned me that my voice may sound funny after surgery depending on how the surgery went. The first thing I remember saying was, “HELLO Sunshines.” The nurses couldn’t believe it. As I was recovering in the hospital, friends and family came and visited often. My boys stayed by my side the entire time. My mom, whom doesn’t live in La Crosse, came to town to help me with the first part of the recovery at home. I knew then….this was just the beginning. After surgery, the next stage was radiation treatments. They started these right away. It was so hard to go through these. I couldn’t eat with the plates and silverware that we had at the house. My aunt had to bring over bedding for my bed because I couldn’t use normal bedding. I wasn’t able to wash my clothes with everyone eles’ and I always had to flush the toilet two times. I couldn’t risk exposing anyone else to the radiation treatments that I was receiving. This was so hard. I couldn’t eat meals with my boys. I couldn’t hold them and love them. I had to miss my little boy’s birthday party because of the radiation and I wasn’t allowed to go to the gym because I was radioactive. I felt trapped in my room and away from my life. I felt like I lived in a bubble that overlooked everything that was going on.
An amazing friend, Chad, began to come over to my house early in the mornings so that we could go for walks at the mall at six in the morning when no one was there. This was tough because my muscles hurt and my heart rate would go really high. I hated how I felt afterwards because I had to go home and go back to bed. I ached to be the person that I was just a few weeks prior to everything that just happened. I was an Ironman! As time went on, Chad would bring me to a favorite trail and we would go running/walking. My strength was beginning to build back up again. I remember telling Chad that I was going to train again for an IM. Chad believed in me and believed that even though I was struggling now, I would accomplish this goal, again. I couldn’t even run a block or ride my bike five miles without getting dizzy, puking, or having my heart rate race. I was determined and Chad knew that about me.
I had many more rounds of radiation (the equivalent to chemo). My body was beginning to break down, I hated every minute of that. I cried often, but never in front of my boys. They could see that the radiation was draining my body because I was tired all of the time and I could only stay awake for a few hours. The worst was when my hair began to fall out because of the radiation. I was unable to shower on my own because I couldn’t raise my hands over my head to wash my hair. I remember looking up and seeing my sister’s face as a clump of my hair came out. She gave me a hug and reassured me that everything would be okay and that my hair would eventually grow back. We stood in the bathroom and cried together.
As time went on, I began to feel stronger and stronger. My boys began to run around the block with me as my strength was built back up. I finished my last round of radiation in February (YEAR). After the treatments, I had to follow up with bone scans and body scans to make sure that the cancer had not spread to other areas of my body. At this same time, I broke the news to my family and friends that I was going to begin training for the IMW…training would start on my (what year birthday- 35), March 2nd. Everyone gave the same type of speech to me…. “Take some time off,” “Let your body rest and recover,” “See what your doctor has to say about this first.” Only two people in this world believed in me and believed in what I was doing, Chad and Tyler. They both knew that no matter what anyone said, I had set a goal and I was going to achieve that goal. This goal was even larger once I realized that with Tyler’s faith in me that I had to accomplish this goal in order to show/teach him that no matter what, you don’t give up!!
Both my mom and my dad came to my first bone scan results appointment. I was incredibly nervous sitting in on that first appointment. Both of my boys came as well, but they sat out in the waiting room with other family and friends just in case something were to come up during the appointment. I was incredibly nervous as I sat and waited for Dr. Asp to come in with the latest body scans. Dr. Asp placed my scans up on the screen right away and showed me that there was no cancer found in my body at that time. I was so incredibly excited and thrilled at that moment. I cried while my mom and dad hugged me. I was so excited that the first thing that came out of my mouth after I stopped crying was, “I am going to start training for the IM WI.” Dr. Asp asked when it was; all the while thinking it had to be at least a year away. I informed him that I had six months, but that I was going to do it. Dr. Asp couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He talked about my muscles being broken down and that my body would need at least six to twelve months to recover from the treatment alone. Both of my parents looked at me intently and when Dr. Asp was finished, they asked if I had listened to what he had told me. I told everyone, “Truthfully, yes, however, I am going to listen to my body and start training.” My mind was set as well as my beginning training date. There was no turning back now.
Training was tough….it was intense….it was exhausting! I trained every day. I had good days and I had bad days. I had days that I just needed to rest (all part of the training of course). As the IM got closer and closer, I was getting stronger both physically and mentally. I knew that I was ready.
A few weeks prior to the IM, I was asked to do a few different interviews for some of the area of La Crosse news stations. I remember many of them talking about how they just couldn’t believe that I was going to do this. One of the reporters asked how I felt. He asked, “Do you feel you had enough time to train for this event- a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and a 26.2 mile run?” I answered with an absolute “YES….AND, I am going to beat last year’s time by thirty minutes.” They couldn’t believe it…and deep down, I couldn’t believe I said that. In the end, though, I did say it…and I was going to do it.
The day of the race, I had a huge group of family and friends at the starting line rooting me on. Both my mom and my stepdad, Bob, gave me a hug and a kiss before I went into the water. They told me that they loved me, they believed in me, and that I could do it. I tried so hard to keep it together for my boys. I gave both of them a hug and a kiss and then I walked down to the water with 2,300 new friends (extreme) athletes. As we were waiting for the cannon to go off, I remember thinking, “I’m going to finish this no matter what.”
As I was entering into the water, I remembered what I had said to everyone…especially the news reporters. The cannon went off and I thought, “Here I go…” It was crazy, like all IM’s are. I stayed relaxed and in control and I was so ready to show the world that I was back. As I came out of the water, I could hear my mom yelling, “Go Danni GO!!!!” I ran up the helix, gave both of my boys hugs, and then I was off to the bike. I heard my mom again as I was getting on the bike and then I heard, “We love you Danni, GO!!!” I began the long trek on my bike…at about 87 miles into it, I could feel my muscles slowing down and becoming increasingly tired. I wasn’t about to give in at that time. I continued to keep my positive attitude and tell myself, “You can do this, you know what you are doing, keep it up!!” It helped to push, but then I started fighting an extremely bad headache. I started to look around and wondered, “Where is my dad?” Was he really that upset that I decided to do this after the doctor said that I shouldn’t do this, that I wouldn’t be able to finish? He did say he was going to come, but I never saw him at the start. I continued to pedal on and build on my positive energy. As I pushed through my bike mile #112, I saw this man standing alone at the bottom of the helix. As I got closer I knew that it was my dad. I couldn’t believe it. As I got closer I could hear him yelling, “DANNI, Go baby GO, I love you!!” I just could not believe what I was seeing or hearing. So many things rushed through my head again. With all of the people around at the IM, it is rare to be standing off by yourself, but my dad did it. It was as if he knew that I was suffering and that seeing him just brought me back to where I needed to be in order to finish. I felt this new found energy and I said to myself, “All you have left is a marathon, you can do this.” As I was telling myself that, I saw a friend in the changing room. She quickly came over to me and said, “Can I help you get ready for the run?” I quickly said, “Yes.” I changed there and as I was coming out of the doors, my family was waiting there for me with hugs and high 5’s to send me off on my marathon. My friends spread themselves out over the course and kept me going with words of encouragement and to keep pushing through. It was amazing….
As I was heading to the finish line, I was able to grab both of my boys hands and my family ran behind me as I finished the IM. My family placed the metal around my neck as we all cried and hugged. It was at that moment that I looked back at the timer and realized that I had not only beaten my previous IM time, but that I had beaten it by thirty-two minutes…two more minutes than I had said during my news interview. I was so excited. I remember looking at my boys and saying, “Never give up on your dreams. I love all of you and thank you all for your support.” It was one of the most amazing moments in my life and I am so thankful for being able to share that experience with my boys.
After all of the excitement began to die down, I knew that I had to head in to get undressed and pack my gear up. My dad could see that I needed some help walking, but instead, he picked me up and took me into the building where they were giving free massages. He told me again, that he loved me and that he was so proud of me. He talked about how he tried so hard to get down to the swim start, but that he couldn’t find me once he got down there because there were so many people around. What mattered the most at this point was that he was there. I didn’t see him, but he was there. All that mattered to me was that my boys, my family, and my friends were all there!
After this IMW, I finished four more. I was the 2007 “Everyday Hero” at the IM Kentucky. I was chosen for that because I survived cancer and on top of that, I continue to help others achieve their goals. I have never given up on myself and I will never give up on anyone else either. I strive to be in the best shape that I can possibly be. I strive to be competitive and passionate as well. Most importantly, however, I strive to share my story with people who either have or are battling with cancer. I truly believe in the importance of this- they need to know that there really is life after cancer and that they can accomplish anything they set out to do.
This experience has given me a whole different outlook on life. It has taught me to appreciate all that I have and to never question, but enjoy all there is to enjoy. My supreme goal in life is to achieve ultimate serenity in life and peak athletic performance. So many find that these two goals can’t co-exist together, but ultimately, I find no conflict here as it is my nature to be both driven and gentle; proud and humble; silly and serious. There is life after cancer and I am living proof of just that. Today, I am the proud owner of a local fitness studio that provides large and small class exercise instruction and personal training. I continue to teach my passion and have passed the love of competition both intrinsically as well as extrinsically in many around the area. There truly is life after cancer.
Live it. Love it. Be it. Confidence. Determined for Life!