Riding a bike for more than 300 miles over six days would be enough to wipe out anyone. And Nicole Nada wasn't even one of the pro cyclists in the Tour of California last week.
But there she was Monday, even hooked up to tubes for her first chemotherapy treatment, just smiling and joking and full of life.
"Whatever it is, it could always be worse. I feel like the second I catch myself feeling sorry for myself, or feeling like I don't want to take the chemotherapy, or whatever I think, 'Are you kidding? How lucky am I that I get to take chemotherapy? That I can take it? That I live somewhere it's possible and that people have donated so much money to cancer research? That we have better outcomes than we used to have?," Nicole said from her window seat at the Marin Cancer Institute treatment room.
"Just yesterday I was thinking 'Oh, I've got to go to chemotherapy and how anticlimactic this ride is going to be. And then last night it hit me, 'Are you crazy? How lucky I am that I get to take it?'"
Nicole's ride from her home in Eureka to the Marin Cancer Institute in Greenbrae has captured a lot of hearts and attention — exactly what she was hoping to accomplish. Nicole set out on her journey just weeks after undergoing surgery for breast cancer. One of her goals was to raise awareness and donations for the Center for Integrative Health and Wellness at Marin General Hospital and the Humboldt Community Breast Health Project.
You can donate to her cause on her site www.kickingmycancer.com.
"It was absolutely phenomenal," Nicole said. "At the end of every day I was tired, but then I would sleep and I'd wake up feeling fine."
Nicole found a suspicous lump in her right breast, but doctors originally discounted the possibility of cancer. She pushed the subject and sought help from Dr. Gullion, an oncologist at Marin Cancer Institute. In a coincidence, she was a nanny for Dr. Gullion 20 years earlier when she was living in Marin. She also met with oncologist Dr. Jennifer Lucas, with whom she attended Novato High School.
Doctors quickly got Nicole into surgery after she was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer.
"I never felt like I was going through it alone. ... I've always felt like I have a really great community. Everyone always pitches in," Nicole said. "I felt like immediately when I got the diagnosis I sent an e-mail to a whole bunch of friends. Of course, right away I started planning what I was going to need. Then I didn't even know yet what I was going to need. Then, without me even knowing — I call it rogue organizing — they were organizing themselves to get ready to help me for when I needed help, even though I didn't know what I needed help with.
"I felt very supported. I felt like at the drop of a hat I could all someone and they'd be ther to walk my dog, take care of my kids, make me food, whatever. Sure enough, when I had my surgery, they did."
As with her battle against breast cancer, Nicole's ride had its ups and downs, but she always had the support of her family. Her husband and two children rode in a support van and met her along the route for rest breaks.
"If you take all day and you have the attitude then you can do it," Nicole said. "I'd get tired, but I'd think about all my supporters and all the people rooting me on … and I would stop if I had to. If I was tired or thirsty, I'd stop and I'd have a little snack or drink something and I'd get motivated, then ride the next hill. It's just that whole one step at a time thing. I learned that right when I got diagnosed."
She was reminded of that by a piece of artwork at the Marin Cancer Institute, a ladder made of found wood, entitled "Just One Step."
"It's interesting to see the ladder hanging in the stairs on the way up, because I learned that from a nurse up in Arcata that it's the only way to get through, one step at a time, one day at a time," Nicole said. "Like, don't even think about anything but what you have to do next. That's how I felt on the ride. I would just think about that hill. … I feel like anyone could do it."
Doctors and staff at the Marin Cancer Institute joined Nicole for the final 50-mile stage of her ride Sunday through Point Reyes and Tomales and into San Anselmo.
"Yesterday, I rode pretty hard with the doctors. … It was great to ride with them along yesterday, because I was feeling like 'OK, I'm ready for this to be over and then I was kind of nervous and the pressure to ride fast, but of course I didn't feel it, because they're all so great."
Even at the Marin Cancer Institute, where all the patients receive star treatment, the spotlight was definitely on Nicole.
"She's an amazing woman," Dr. David Gullion told reporters. "It's great to see her embrace all the aspects of the Center."
She was just happy, though to sit in a comfortable chair, sip on some juice and enjoy a slice of banana bread provided by Herb, one of the nurses at the Institute.
Nicole will commute between Eureka and Greenbrae with friends and family to get her treatment for a few weeks, before moving in with family in Marin during the summer. The banana bread is enough to keep her coming back, but it's her attitude that really keeps her going.
"Flying down those hills is where I'm tapping into when I'm having a chemo low, because that was so beautiful and exhilarating," Nicole said.
And what's over the next hill?
Nicole said with a whimsical smile, "Who knows what's next, but it's going to be something."
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