Just moments into my interview with Nicholle Anderson, I found myself wishing everyone in Canada could be on the call with me so they too could hear her voice with its wonderful mix of fire, effervescence, and steely determination. Our conversation ranged from competitive cheer to parenting to existential musings to cancer, which was the original intent of the call.
Nicholle is a survivor of nasopharyngeal cancer. She was diagnosed in 2016 and at this point has made the 2-year milestone of being cancer-free. Here is our conversation:
Can you please talk about your life prior to and leading up to diagnosis?
When I first started dating Craig [now goalie for the Ottawa Senators], I was an elementary school teacher and was very into competitive cheer. I had done a lot of stuff with choreography, cheerleading… I worked for NCA, I did all of the cheerleading camps and a lot of my best friends are still in the industry. This weekend is Worlds and they’re trying to get me to come, but my little son has a dance recital and I can’t miss that! Basically, when cheerleading evolved from high school cheer into All Star, that was all my cheer friends who opened up the main gyms all those years ago. So, I am on the cusp from old-school to new-school, you know? [laughs] It’s awesome.
From there, we got married and I taught school in Colorado when Craig played for Colorado, and then I decided to take a step back from teaching and focus on having and raising the boys. That’s when he got traded from Colorado up to Ottawa. So, I focused on the kids and I couldn’t really teach because it’s French immersion and I have no French skills, to put it lightly!
So, I raised the kids and we were working on a third child. I should say before I had cancer, I thought I was invincible. I had so much freedom; I was unstoppable. I was blessed to marry my best friend and have my two kids: Jake and Levi. And then I was living in Florida and we decided to go for a third. And that’s when I started having a sinus infection – I had been pregnant for 2 months. I was having all these sinus issues and I was talking to my OBGYN and telling her how my phlegm was changing from clear to yellow to brown to flecks of blood, and she told me that I must be having a severe sinus infection. She gave me an antibiotic that was safe to have during my pregnancy.
From there – at 16 weeks – we received news from a perinatologist who said, “Nicholle, the baby’s heart isn’t on the right axis, the vein never closed right and so you’re missing the cerebellum – there were a bunch of issues in the pregnancy… So we had to sit and talk about what we wanted to do. But then I ended up miscarrying. I cleared everything, which was a miracle. But I still had the sinus infection. Two weeks later, I noticed this little pea-sized lump in my neck and that’s when I called the team doctor in Ottawa.
Nicholle was given a serum to help fight the infection and was also sent for an ultrasound. She popped in and had it done before she and the boys left for Pennsylvania where Nicholle was headed to spend time with a friend who was going through chemotherapy.
So, I drove down to see my friend – it’s a 6-hour drive – and by the time I get there, they’re calling me from Ottawa saying, “We want you to have a biopsy.”
In a fortunate turn of geography, Nicholle was able to see a doctor from the Philadelphia Flyers’ farm team (which is based where her mom happens to live) the next day. Her neck was biopsied and she went back to keeping her friend company. Four days later, she was called back in.
They said, “We’re sorry, but you have nasopharyngeal carcinoma,” and from there on, it was treatment. Something that I thought was just a cold was not. Even though I never thought cancer, I knew something was not right because it wasn’t clearing away.
Diagnosis day. What was that like?
That day? Well… I remember calling Craig in Vancouver – he wasn’t even awake and I had to get other people to go knocking on his hotel door – and telling him what was going on. He flew home that day… When you’re first diagnosed – and I’m not going to lie, I gotta tell you straight out – the first thing you think is, I’m gonna die. Because you always hear all the horror stories from cancer.
I was with my sister and my kids. At the time Jake was 5 and Levi was 2. They’re running down the hallway and I’m given this news, and I’m crying. The nurses took my kids and my sister sat with me and I just realized, I need to be strong. I can’t cry in front of my kids. And I feel like I had to always portray this image that Mommy’s okay, when deep down, I’m not okay. That builds a lot of anxiety too – you don’t want people talking around your kids because they don’t understand.
How did you talk to your kids about your cancer?
Well, at first I didn’t know what to say: not the mom in me, not the teacher in me. I didn’t know what to say. So the way I presented it at the time was, “Mommy’s really sick. And I’m going to be at the hospital and I’m going to the going to the doctor, but I’m gonna get better.” I told them that they would see me getting shots and needles and feeling sick and that it was going to take a while for me to get better. That’s how I did it at first.
Levi and Jake still know what the H means on the road signs because of that time. They’ll pass that part of their driver’s exam no problem!
I think Jake was exposed more to the word cancer because he was going to kindergarten and a lot of people knew my story so I was kind of scared of what he knew and what he didn’t know. And then it was the playoff hockey season and Craig was playing Pittsburgh in the eastern-conference finals. We were sitting on my couch – I can remember it vividly – and I was talking to my Uncle Dave who had moved in to help us. And Bryan Murray comes on and I tell my uncle that he had cancer.
I said, “He’s in overtime. He’s over 50 chemos now and he has to do chemos to stay alive.” I didn’t realize my little five year old had ears and was listening to me. And Jake looked at me and said, “You’re gonna live, right?” And that’s when I realized I really had to have a conversation with him.
So I sat down and basically told him there’s all different kinds of cancer, and everybody’s different and God wants some people back faster than other people. I had to present it in a bigger way so as not to scare him. I told him about how when you feel like something’s wrong you need to listen to your body and follow up on it. But he was scared. At one point he said, “But you’re not going to die, are you?” Those were his exact words. And I said, “No, babe, I’m not gonna die.”
But then I had to ask myself: Nicholle, deep down do you know you’re not gonna die? And that fuels your anxiety too, because I’m trying to tell my kid the right thing, but then I don’t want to have him say 3 years from now, “My mom said she wasn’t going to die.” What’s right? What’s the wrong way? I don’t know, but I figured if he was old enough and knowledgeable enough to ask the question, I had to give him the right answer. I don’t ever want to lie to my kids.
I couldn’t even lie about the tooth fairy! Jake told me he heard at school it wasn’t real and I said, “You’re right buddy, it isn’t real. But don’t tell your brother!”
At what point did you decide to go public with your diagnosis and why?
When I went through the miscarriage in the pre-season of 2016, I watched so much negative media coverage about Craig… and it was so heartbreaking to see people judge my husband about his character and leaving the game when here I am going through a miscarriage no one knows about.
So, when I got diagnosed with cancer, I said to Craig, “You’re not taking that abuse from the public. You are a human and people need to know that athletes are human and things happen. I’m not scared to share my story.” Cancer happens to everybody. I opened up a blog to write about it mainly to keep the hockey world and all our friends and huge family updated. There was no way I could have talked to everybody in our life about what was happening all the time – I would have been on the phone non-stop. Writing was a way people could tap in and have their questions answered. Writing was also a sense of therapy for me.
When I wrote on my blog, putting my thoughts into words helped me process my feelings. It was a self-healing process for me during treatment. It helped deepen my education on my cancer and others at the same time.
So then it just led into something bigger – the blog –and I think it opened up a lot of doors of education for people.
What was mostly keeping you looking up and looking forward in those days?
Being a teacher! I’ve always been a teacher, whether it’s elementary school or whatever, I’m always teaching something. It’s just who I am… My mind immediately went to how to teach people about cancer, and not so much about, “Oh, I have cancer.” When you hear ‘cancer’ and you hear ‘chemo’ – most people have no idea and I didn’t either.
When they said, “You’re going to get 33 radiation and 6 chemo treatments every 2 weeks,” I said, “Okay, I can take it.” And then you walk in and it’s like, Oh God, this is what they really mean?! It was a brutal treatment, but I made it. I feel when people just throw around the words about cancer and treatments (when it’s not happening to them), they talk about treatment like it’s a cold medicine and the people are going to be fine. But no one truly understands the side effects, the sickness that goes along with it, down to even the mental health impacts.
Yes, let’s talk about that. From then until now, please talk about the mental health aspect of this whole time for you. Diagnosis, treatment, post-treatment and even now. And even being a public figure through it all – I mean, bless Canadians and their love of hockey, but I can imagine there must have been a ton of pressure on both you and Craig to keep him in the game. Was that on your minds at all?
This might sound crazy, but I think for Craig, seeing what I went through, only made him play better. Because now he focuses on living for the now. What would have stressed him out before, he just blocks out. He gets on the ice, plays his 60 minutes, and he’s living in that moment now. He knows how to weed through all the negative stuff he doesn’t need to worry about anymore. So, if anything, it’s a deeper meaning for him that enables him to play better.
For me, when I was going into this whole cancer thing, I said, “I got this, I can do it” because I’ve always had that mentality of being capable and independent. I made my own money, I did what I wanted to, and I believed I could do anything… I remember Craig when I was diagnosed and we were sitting in my mom’s living room. Andrew Hammond had taken over for him and then Andrew got hurt. And that’s when I said, “Craig, you need to go back to work right now.” And he said, “Nik, you’ve just been diagnosed with cancer, are you crazy?” I go, “No, you call up Justin Duberman and you go back…”
So, I threw him back into the game! And he did amazing. But then once my treatment was going on, they played Pittsburg and they lost bad that game. He called me after and said, “Nicholle, my mind is not here. I don’t think you know what you’re going into right now and I need to come home.”
At that point, I respected where his mind was and that he couldn’t do it… Thank God he made the decision he did when he did.
How would you describe your mental health now?
I think the fear of dying is always there. When I was going through treatment, I kept saying, “I’m going to get to the finish line.” And then there were times when I would think, I can’t go and my husband and my sister would say, “You’re going to the end, Nicholle. You’re going to finish this.” And you need those cheerleaders cheering you on.
And then you get through cancer, and they say you’re cancer-free, but in your mind, you’re think, Holy shit, it’s going to come back. Even though they tell you you’re cancer-free, you cannot forget what you just went through. You get a PET scan… and you know your next one is in 3 months. And for the first two months, you are good, you think you’re good, they’ve told you everything’s okay. And then you’re up for your next scan, and all that anxiety comes up again and you start worrying: What if, what if, what if? You feel like you’re always on this three-month time frame. And then they tell you after 2 years you can breathe easier. So I’m at 2 years. But then they say if it’s going to resurface, it’s going to happen between year 2 and 3!
So you’re mentally telling yourself, I’m okay; I’m okay; What if I’m not okay; Am I okay? I think I’m okay… It’s a mental-emotional rollercoaster.
It’s got to be. Because you’ve walked that walk, you know what it’s like to sit in the doctor’s office and hear that diagnosis. I would imagine that on some level you’re preparing yourself to have that conversation again. It must be terrifying.
Yes. And now you put yourself – or at least I do – into this mode where I feel like I gotta do everything. I can’t say no. If my kids wanna do soccer, we do soccer; baseball? Football? Sure, we’ll do it all because I don’t want them to miss anything. I don’t want to miss anything. I feel like I put myself in overload and I’m exhausting myself – I don’t mean to – but I want to do everything and I don’t want to say no.
So you tell yourself, You’re fine, you’re fine, you’re fine, but then in December last year, I had my first panic attack. And that was scary. I had heard people say they’ve had panic attacks, but I had no idea what that was like. Until you’ve had cancer, you don’t understand cancer. Until you’ve had a panic attack, you don’t understand panic attacks.
Craig and I were out to dinner in Ottawa and we’re sitting there and all of a sudden I said, “We have to go.” He looks at me and says, “What’s wrong?” And I said, “ I don’t know; I don’t feel right.” I feel like I’m a fixture in a movie, like we’re sitting at this table and everything is blurry and going, wah wah wah in the background. We go outside into the minus 30 degree weather and that cool air felt good, but as soon as we got home, the whole house started closing in on me. I felt like I was having a heart attack…
And that’s when we had the team doctor come over. And he confirmed it was a panic attack. He asked me if I knew what triggered it and I said, “I have no idea” but now we attribute it to the fear of dying. So, even when people say they’re cancer-free and they’re doing great, the mental aspect of it is hard. I mean, there are days when I think I’m doing great, and then it all creeps up on me.
I can function in the world, that’s for sure, but will I always have that fear? Yes. Even through therapy and everything, I feel like I was always have that fear because I was given a death card in my mind. So I appreciate minute by minute by minute, and I am always the biggest advocate for anything health wise people aren’t sure about – get a second opinion. I don’t trust anything anymore and that’s hard part on my mental health… I guess I’ll always second guess if something medicine is telling me is right or wrong.
I think another hard thing is that I was always a healthy person. I was in the gym, working out, and now there are days where my body’s still so drained that even though I want to, I can’t. I can’t. Even down to chemo messing with my menstrual cycle, because that happens – there’s so many things that come on after [treatment].
I keep saying to myself – it’s the new normal. I don’t want to complain about it, I’m just trying to accept my new normal and just make my every day habits different from before but that’s okay. And that’s what I keep telling myself.
I am continuously researching ingredients that are good for nutrition enhancing my diet with a lot of super foods. I now shop on the outside of the store. I am taking in more fruits and vegetables. I ask daily: Did I have greens? Antioxidants? Healthy living is a lifestyle and I am eliminating what I was taught as a child.
In addition, I switched my skin care and personal products to Beautycounter. I am consciously always reading about environmental factors and consciously trying to change my old habits. I also became a consultant to help educate others on the importance of safer products. It actually helps with the anxiety.
For a few minutes Nicholle and I talked further about panic attacks and how it feels to have your body turn on you in such a scary way. I told her about Nick Laporte, who is also featured on Unsinkable (if you haven’t read his story yet, do), and how he has to constantly work at learning to trust his body again calming anxiety. Nicholle related to his story in this way:
I think the hardest part, and here I’m linking to what you described about [Nick Laporte], is that when I had that miscarriage, I was given this form that asked if I had high blood pressure, diabetes, all those boxes you have to check. All I had were migraines, and I remember looking at Craig and saying, “I made it this far in life and I’ve only checking migraines! This is great!” And then I turn into a lemon overnight [with cancer] with constant doctor’s appointments, nasal scopes, now I have thyroid issues, and the radiation, I’m always battling headaches. There’s always something long term from the chemo and radiation in terms of side effects – I’ll never say again, “I’m great!” [laughing]
Do you think it’s a common misunderstanding people have that once you’re cancer- free, you just go back to the life you had before?
Yes, I do. You don’t ever go back to what you had, or were, before. But I’m okay with that. I think the thing I can take out of all of this – the silver lining – is that I am here to help people now. When the NHL calls and asks me to do Hockey Fights Cancer, I jump on board. I love to help and I love to give back. I can even go to the cancer place down the street and if someone there wants to talk, I’ll be there.
I feel like this is my calling, in a way. When you go through the hardest time in your life, then you can give back in a bigger, more grateful way. My next steps are all about helping.
Not a lot of people aren’t able to do this, so I just want to celebrate this about you. No judgment, but it’s extra special when someone can use what happened to them for the greater good.
And the bigger picture… between the fan base and everybody coming together around our story two years ago, it makes you realize the world is kind and respectful and wants good. When you see different negative things on social media or whatever, in the big picture the public support shows that we all want to be there for each other. The love, the kindness, the respect – I mean, our story has draw, but what the bigger picture made me see was that people really care and this is something we all need to be together on.
As we both got teary, Nicholle paused to add with a laugh, It’s deep, Jody, it’s deep.
What advice can you share from your own lived experience with people who are battling cancer or supporting loved ones who have, or have had, cancer? What do people need to know?
They need to breathe, live day to day. You can’t think of all the ‘what ifs’, because that will drive you insane. You live for the now. Even for people who don’t have cancer – you’re thinking about that trip to Disneyworld? Book it. Don’t say 2 years from now we’re going to go. If you can do it, book it. If say you want to have lunch at Grandma’s house every Sunday, then start doing it. Plan it. Do it. Because your life can change in the matter of a day and I think all of us take for granted each minute we have… You could be 25, you could be 80…LIVE. Just live.
One more thing I’d like to add: I know a lot of people when they know someone who gets diagnosed with cancer, they think, What can I get them? People ask me all the time: Should I get them a book, a blanket? And yes, all that stuff is fine, but patients need your presence, NOT your presents. Go over and offer to clean their kitchen, take their kids to the movies, straighten up for them, or even just hang out and watch a movie. They need your ongoing support. Mail a card once a week if they don’t want to see people. But do little things to make them smile.
I smiled so many times during this interview. Thank you, Nicholle.