Fight Mode

Massage therapist Nicole Huston prides herself on being someone her patients turn to when they’re under stress or anxiety, but when the 27-year-old suffered the most stressful moment of her own life, she admits she didn’t quite know who to turn to.  

Ironically, Nicole’s symptoms all began with a then minor problem a massage could rectify – a stiff neck. She recalls it starting sometime in March of last year and would come and go. Eventually, though, it became such a problem that she turned to Osteopathy, regular massages and acupuncture, in a bid to relieve it.  But rather than ease her discomfort, Nicole felt her condition worsening. She started feeling sluggish and would get cold easily – symptoms that made her job even harder. Quitting wasn’t an option, however, and so she simply trudged on.

Initially, Nicole brushed it off as a virus but as her condition worsened, she finally visited her doctor. Blood tests were done the next day but, as fate would have it, the nurse wasn’t able to find a vein. So, with every intention of returning next week, Nicole took off on an intrepid weekend in Rotorua, mountain biking with her partner Cody. When they started cycling, though, Nicole couldn’t do it. She felt burnt out and exhausted before she’d even begun. She decided to sit out the rest of the day but even then, only felt slightly better.

It was only on her return home to Hamilton, when she climbed into the shower, that Nicole realised something was seriously wrong: she had bruises all over her legs for no obvious reason.

She returned to the testing lab on Monday and that same afternoon received a call from her doctor, saying the results had come back abnormal for someone her age, and telling her to immediately make her way to her local hospital for further testing. Three hours later she was told the news no one ever wants to hear: she had cancer - acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), to be precise, and although it was treatable, the treatment needed to start as soon as possible.

 “I was in shock… I was numb”, recalls Nicole.

“My first thought was how I was going to break the news to all my clients. I didn’t want to upset anyone! But after hearing the doctor say it was treatable I went into fight mode, like, ‘what do we need to do and when do we need to do it’ – and before I knew it I was on a plane to Palmy, literally on a life-or-death mission to beat this thing”.

Upon arrival, Nicole participated in a special study that would help determine which treatment would work better to treat AML, and that same Thursday her journey to health began with her first chemotherapy and blood transfusions.

She recalls her first chemo as the toughest to get through; so sick she spent one night in ICU receiving blood products to help alleviate her fatigue. It turned out her lethargy was due to her alarmingly low haemoglobin – she was in dire need of blood transfusions to get her feeling healthy again.

In total, Nicole spent nine days at Palmerston North Hospital, received three rounds of chemo and a number of blood transfusions. And much to Nicole’s surprise and satisfaction, her sore neck was suddenly gone!

But her bigger battle against cancer was far from over: Nicole had ‘neutropenia’ –an abnormally low count of white blood cells, which means a very low immunity. In such a vulnerable condition, Nicole needed to be put in isolation to avoid any bugs or diseases whilst continuing her treatment of blood transfusions.

Fortunately, she and her mother were given a place to stay at Osmond House, which provides accommodation for cancer patients in Palmerston North and it’s there, that she and her mum called home for the next three-and-a-half months. When she was finally discharged, and she couldn’t believe it – she was able to go home with her immunity and blood count finally back to normal. 

Ecstatic at her recovery thanks to the blood transfusions, and with her ‘fight mode’ still on, Nicole decided to start the new year back at work. She kept up her weekly blood checks, which soon became monthly, and eventually every three months. She also soon returned to normal working hours and regained her pre-diagnosis energy level.

“I lost a lot of muscle weight when I was sick,” says Nicole, “and so I’ve had a personal trainer help me with my core strength since then.”

“I’ve also learned not to always push myself so hard. It’s just so nice to feel good again!

Despite her whirlwind experience, Nicole says she never gave up, not even for a second. Her ‘fight mode’ kept her going so strong that she even got married in February of this year. She admits she didn’t do much wedding prep while she was sick, but as soon as she felt better, thanks to her blood transfusions she was able to devote her energies to ensuring it was the most special day of her and Cody’s life.

And it was, but only thanks to the generosity of literally hundreds of strangers – all those who’d donated the blood Nicole received during journey to health.

She has a message not only for them, but also those who haven’t yet taken the step to donate:

“You may not need blood now, but at some point it swings around in circles. Due to a childhood injury I’m unable to donate, but I do want to be able to pay it back somehow. And so I tell all my friends what happened to me, and how I’m still alive because of donors. My friends now know exactly what it means to be a donor, and so they’re out there saving lives. Thanks to all you donors out there, for saving mine”.

To find out more about how you can become a blood donor, click here or call 0800 GIVE BLOOD.

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