Connie Nickel, who has worked at UM for more than 25 years, still remembers exactly when and where she learned she had breast cancer, even though three years have passed.
“It was the day before Thanksgiving,” said Nickel, who is currently an assistant director at the Wellness Center. “I was at the Stop and Shop, getting a soda. I was in the parking lot, and that’s when they called me and told me I had cancer.”
That day, Nickel simply sat in the parking lot, trying to process the news. The tears she expected were nowhere to be found.
“It was just, ‘Wow, I have cancer. Wow, I have cancer,’” she said. “I just didn’t know what to think. It was just a state of shock for quite a while.”
Next, she started to make phone calls to family members to fill them in, to several doctors to find an oncologist, and to secretaries to schedule appointments.
And still, the tears stayed inside.
“I got the process rolling,” she said. “I just wanted to go forward. Whatever is needed. Let’s go now.”
But when the time came to tell some of her coworkers, Nickel’s composure crumbled. Back then, she was the associate athletic director for internal operations and the senior women’s administrator in the athletic department, where she had worked for more than two decades.
“I went to one of my long-time friends who was the track coach,” Nickel said. “She was the first person I told, and I started crying. I was like, ‘Wow, I’ve gotten this far without crying, but why now?’”
According to Nickel, it was an odd day. The more coworkers she told, the more the tears seemed to flow.
“I was like ‘Oh, come on, let’s get this over with,’” she said. “’These guys are not handling this crying thing well.’”
Since Nickel had received her mammogram at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, she decided to return there for treatment.
Right before Christmas, Nickel was implanted with a port, a medical device in her chest to help deliver chemotherapy into her body.
“It was funny how all of this was kind of happening around the holidays,” she said.
On Jan. 31, 2010, nearly two months after her diagnosis, Nickel finally began her three-step treatment plan: six months of chemotherapy, followed by a double mastectomy, and then five weeks of radiation therapy.
“[During] the first four sessions, the liquid [for chemotherapy] was a shocking pink,” she said. ‘That put me off for life. I have no interest in that color ever again.”
Throughout most of her chemo, Nickel continued to show up to work, and by her own record “almost never missed a day.”
But the double mastectomy – a surgical procedure on both her breasts to remove the cancer – was what scared Nickel.
“I had heard a lot of horror stories about it,” she said.
Though she needed two followup surgeries to resolve complications from the initial procedure, Nickel was up and answering emails the next day.
“My doctor will have a heart attack, but four days later, I was driving,” she said. “I was supposed to take two weeks off. In a week and a half, I was back at work.”
After the surgery, Nickel received dozens of flowers and plants from her colleagues, who also took turns cooking her dinner every night.
“My house looked like a florist’s,” she said. “I just felt so loved.”
Next up was the radiation therapy, which was the easiest of Nickel’s three treatments. The only side effect was a bad sunburn.
It was October by the time Nickel wrapped up her treatment and switched to maintenance drugs that help prevent relapse.
Almost two years have passed since then, and Nickel still visits her oncologists every six months.
“Every anniversary is a big one,” she said. “Five years is the magical one. That’s when the risk of reoccurrence gets a lot smaller.”
Though her cancer is gone, the marks remain. Nickel still has a scar from the port in her chest, and her eyebrows never grew back after she lost them to chemotherapy. Instead, she tattooed them on to avoid the hassle of re-drawing them every day.
“It was a journey that wasn’t as horrible as I thought it could have been,” she said. “I had a good attitude about the whole thing.”