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Patient AdvocacyBreast Cancer

Both Sides of the Cancer Story

Nicole Fuller went from being on the patient side of breast cancer to becoming an oncology navigator and advocate, cancer exercise specialist, and motivational speaker. This is her story.
October 2021 Vol 7 No 5
Nicole Fuller
Sandton, South Africa

I was diagnosed with invasive lobular carcinoma in both breasts in July 2017. The shock and fear at hearing the words, “You have breast cancer,” is indescribable. It is something I would not wish on my worst enemy. Suddenly, you are thrust into a world you know nothing about, facing a thing you thought would never happen to you—especially me, having been a top athlete most of my life.

“The Good One”

I will never forget my doctor telling me at diagnosis “You got the good one.” I had no idea what she was talking about.

As it turned out, I had stage 1A, low-grade, not aggressive, slow-growing, lazy lobular, estrogen receptor (ER)-positive, progesterone receptor (PR)-positive, or endocrine-positive breast cancer.

I will be eternally grateful for the incredible medical care I received and continue to receive. I had a bilateral mastectomy, with immediate breast reconstruction, and I still laugh at the memory of me asking for the smallest breast implants possible because I am a runner, yet fainting when my sentinel node biopsy drain was removed. That was how I met my reconstructive surgeon.

I was very fortunate not to need chemotherapy or radiation. Maybe this was good, but even the good things can sometimes turn out to be bad.

I had a remarkable recovery from my breast cancer, thanks to my fitness and the incredible support I received.

I decided not to let this “cancer thing” define me. I decided that by sharing my story, I could make a difference to other patients and survivors, and it certainly gave me a new sense of purpose. Having a sense of purpose creates positivity and resilience.

The Other Side

So, from a patient with cancer, I moved to the other side of the story—I became an oncology patient navigator and advocate, a cancer exercise specialist, as well as a motivational speaker.

What an incredible experience it has been. I have gained so much knowledge, and have had my eyes opened.

It gives me a deep sense of purpose to be able to assist, guide, educate, motivate, and counsel patients with cancer from diagnosis through treatment and into survivorship, to make this journey a little less daunting for patients and their families.

A big advantage of being a survivor myself is that it gives me a unique perspective and the ability to identify and understand what my patients are going through. Most important, it helps me to realize how each cancer journey is so unique, and should never be compared.

A Tough But Inspired Path

I have to admit that I sometimes find it emotionally and psychologically tough. I have always believed that knowledge is power, but in the greater scheme of things, I am, and will always be, a patient with cancer myself, and sometimes, knowing so much can be scary.

No matter how positive you are, there is always that fear of a recurrence, and “scanxiety” is very real. I even sometimes have guilt, because I only needed surgery, was privileged to have an immediate reconstruction, never needed chemotherapy or radiation, and have been healthy compared with what so many of my fellow patients go through.

The words of my very wise surgeon often ring in my ear—“You have to be empathetic but also realistic, as long as you know you have made a difference. There is so much heartache and sadness out there.”

To my surgeons and my oncologist, who inspired me and set me on this path, to all the other incredible individuals and organizations who have inspired, mentored, supported, and helped me gain confidence and knowledge and have given me these amazing opportunities—I will always be grateful.

This includes my doctors, the Breast Health Foundation, Bosom Buddies, Woman of Stature, George Washington University, the Academy of Oncology Nurse & Patient Navigators (AONN+), the Cancer Exercise Training Institute, Machi Filotimo Cancer Project, CANSA Association of South Africa, and Rosebank Oncoplastic Cosmetic Surgery Institute.

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Last modified: November 8, 2021

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