Diagnosed in 2009 with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Corner Brook, NL native Nicole McKinnon knew her entire world was going to change forever. She was 21 years old and the mother of a newborn child when she suddenly found herself facing the toughest fight of her life, but her family was determined she would not face it alone. They all moved across the province to St. John’s and stayed in an apartment together while she was in treatment. Her two brothers work in the oil and gas industry in Alberta and they would spend their weeks off in St. John’s with her rather than returning to Edmonton or Corner Brook with their families. They would eat pizza and watch movies on a laptop, and one of her brothers would sleep in a chair and in the hospital for the full week until it was time to go back to work.
“The most important thing was me and my son, Brayden. They jumped in without any hesitation and raised him for me when I couldn’t. My whole family came together and stood by me each step of the way. My extended family held fundraisers that raised over $20,000 for me. I honestly don’t think I would have made it through this without the support system that I had.”
That support system helped, but she says it was her son who ultimately gave her the strength she needed to carry on. Brayden can’t remember that time in his mother’s life, but that’s all right. She is happy to remind him of it every chance she gets.
“I always tell him he’s my hero. When he was a baby he saved my life. I always tell him that, even if he’s too young to understand. He was the main reason I had to fight. My son couldn’t grow up without a mom, right?”
Although she had her son with her in St. John’s, Brayden’s father, Scott—her boyfriend, now fiancé—had to stay home in Corner Brook and work.
“It was hard on Brayden’s dad. We were together the whole time and he had to stay in Corner Brook when I was in St. John’s because he needed to continue working in order for us to survive. I guess we came to an understanding that Brayden was going to keep me strong,” she said. “Not everybody understood why we were doing what we were doing. I guess when you’re on the outside looking in, you don’t really understand the decisions that people make.”
Feeling isolated when your surrounded by people
McKinnon says she is naturally friendly and outgoing, but it was difficult to socialize when she was sick.
“Everything changed for me,” she said. “I didn’t want to see anybody. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I didn’t want to explain myself to anybody. I really drifted away from a lot of my friends…I would let a couple [of my close friends] come visit, but not very often.
“I didn’t drive a car for two years. I didn’t talk to a lot of my friends for two years. My parents and fiancé would try to get me up—‘Come on, get some clothes on, we’re going out for supper!’—and it took literally every ounce of energy to do it. Sometimes I didn’t think they understood. Even little things, like walking up a flight of stairs, was exhausting. All I wanted to do was sleep.”
Although she was surrounded by a tireless support system, McKinnon says she still had periods where she felt isolated and though she would try and explain how she felt, and no matter how much people nodded their heads and tried to empathize, she knew most people just didn’t understand—except for Jeff Gallant. He was a high school friend of McKinnon’s, and they both stayed in the same apartment complex when they were in St. John’s for treatment.
“We were just a building apart, and we kind of supported each other. It was easy for me if I was having a really rough day to go to him and explain to him, ‘You know I had chemo today and I just feel like dirt and this is what’s going on with me’ and I knew that everything that was coming out of my mouth, he understood 100 per cent.
“He did actually pass away, he didn’t get through his fight, but I always remember him saying that once we survived this together, we’ll both get up for the Relay for Life. We were both always asked to speak for the Relay for Life because we’re two young people in Corner Brook and there are not too many others like us. That’s the year that I got up and read my speech,” she said.
While she certainly felt down sometimes during cancer, McKinnon says she never gave in to full-blown depression. Instead she was angry: angry she got cancer, angry that other people were able to live their lives the way they wanted to, and angry that there were no answers to why all this was happening.
“I spent so much time wondering if I had gotten cancer because of something I had done in the past,” she said. “Maybe I mistreated someone. Maybe I’ve lied. I always felt like I was being punished for something I had done when I was young. Looking back, I know that was silly, but at the time I thought there must be a reason why I was sick. “
The anger and doubts are long gone. This young survivor is at peace and in love with her life. She went back to school, she enjoys planning birthday parties for Brayden (now 5), she recently welcomed a new baby, and she says that even something as simple as waking up in the morning still makes her very happy.
“I smile so much more now! Everything is just so much better now.”
Click here to read Nicole’s survivor profile.