Following a year of treatments and recovery from breast cancer, Nicole Werner finds hope, healing and happiness from the little things.
Last May, Nicole Werner was on her way to Portland to accompany her oldest daughter to a college orientation – a relatively brief day trip that’s perhaps commonplace among other Bend mothers with children about to graduate high school.
It was during this trip when she had an epiphany.
“It was a gorgeous day, my first time out of town in a really long time. And it was the first time in months I felt excited,” she said. “I saw the river, I was excited. I saw the forest, I was excited. I went, ‘OK, it’s possible for me to feel excited again.’”
Nicole’s lack of “excitement” during the previous months was the result of the anxiety, depression and general lack of control she experienced while battling breast cancer.
This Bend mother of two had discovered a lump nearly a year prior, a discovery that led her down a dizzying path involving surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and hormone therapy.
It was a brutal journey, she said, that took its toll both physically and emotionally, draining her of her natural zest for creativity, for adventure … for life.
But this moment on the way to Portland marked a turning point in her battle.
“It wasn’t as much a massive, life-changing moment, but it was a glimpse that things became possible again,” Nicole said. “All of a sudden, I saw a glimmer of light I hadn’t experienced in months. There was a light inside me again – a feeling of hope. That paved the way for me to be, ‘OK, I can heal. I can live.’”
When Nicole discovered a lump during the spring of 2016, she was terrified.
At 43, the active and artistic Central Oregonian had never had a mammogram. “Why?” she and her physician thought. With no family history of cancer and an otherwise proactive approach to her health, the procedure had previously seemed unnecessary for someone her age and history.
But the lump … that changed everything.
“The mammogram ultimately didn’t show any tumors, but an ultrasound was able to I.D. what the doctor at the end of that session called ‘worrisome,’” Nicole said. “I then had a biopsy the following week, and it was through this that I was diagnosed with invasive ductal breast cancer.”
Surgery was necessary. Nicole opted for a bilateral mastectomy, which was performed in July of 2016. The procedure removed six small tumors from her breast, as well as 14 lymph nodes.
The good news: her cancer was categorized as Stage 2B, meaning it was caught relatively early and had not metastasized to other organs.
Next came 16 rounds of chemo, Herceptin, and then 33 rounds of radiation, all over the course of several months.
“I found it really odd how my emotions were through all this,” Nicole said. “Before I went into surgery, as I was trying to wrap my head around all I was going into, I knew that surely, right after surgery, I’ve gotta rest. But after that, I can play with pain, maybe take some pictures … this and that.
“Well, that didn’t happen. The next few months were brutal.”
A long-time artist, photographer and graphic designer who often buried herself in the creative process, Nicole found no motivation. And, she started experiencing depression and anxiety attacks – a rush of fear over the simplest of thoughts.
“Between surgery through chemo and radiation, I felt very indifferent to my creativity,” she said. “I felt no inspiration at all. I had no interest in it. I was battling this really weird anxiety through chemo. It drove me crazy because I felt nobody could help me.”
The anxiety and the depression and the emotions, not to mention the physical changes her body experienced through surgery, medication and healing … it all seemed as never-ending as it was overwhelming at times. Until…
Nicole finally felt excitement for the world around her … a glimmer of hope as she drove her daughter to college orientation.
“Going through this journey, I feel I got pummeled … attacked,” she said. “And now, coming out, I feel like this tornado has gone through my life. And now I’m slowly opening the door, peeking out and seeing if it’s safe to go outside.”
The Next Chapter
With a feeling of hope renewed, and having continued to remain physically and mentally sharp through the practice of Tai Chi, Nicole was ready to take the next step in recovery before her final reconstruction surgery this fall: a summer road trip around Oregon with her partner, Kip.
The two spent a few days following a loop down through the Fort Rock/Christmas Valley area and to the Steens Mountain, before working their way back to the Painted Hills, through the John Day Fossil Beds, and back to Central Oregon.
“I’m just happy that I’m feeling inspired again,” she said. “I think there were times I felt it would never happen again, but the glimmer of light is back again.”
During the trip, on the day they were exploring around Steens Mountain, Nicole said she and Kip got an unexpected boost.
“Serendipitously, we got a ride from a Forest Service guy to the summit of Steens Mountain,” she said.
From the top, the two had to walk the seven miles back to the trailhead, but the hike proved to be a highlight of the summer.
“I hurt so bad, and I was so exhausted, but that was an amazing place to be.”