For anyone out there currently finding it hard to detach themselves from the tv remote. Or their posterior from the couch. Or their hand from the proverbial cookie jar, (us, us, and us, again), relax, we have found the antidote. Her name? Nikki Bradley, (37), adaptive adventurer and possibly the country’s most adventurous crutch user.
This title (adventurous crutch user) has been hard-earned through pain and persistence, through grit and graft. It’s a title that has been bestowed because of the feats and the firsts Nikki has accomplished, like being the first person to climb four Irish mountain peaks – on crutches – in 32 hours; like being the first woman to abseil off Fanad Head Lighthouse; the first female on crutches to trek the 24kms on the Brecon Beacons mountain range in Wales, in an endurance event organised by FAF soldiers. Nikki Bradley doesn’t do things by halves.
But, keeping active and busy she doesn’t wear as a badge of honour. She does it because 1). It stops her overthinking and 2). Because exercise has offered Nikki a reprieve from constant pain and from a life spent living on painkillers. Diagnosed with a rare bone cancer called Ewing’s Sarcoma at just 16 years old, Nikki has endured multiple surgeries, including a tumour removal, two hip replacements, a femur repair and an amputation. And, she is living proof that exercise works. That it does help both body and mind.
In Nikki’s first photoshoot since her most recent surgeries, an amputation followed by a rotationplasty, we visit her in her home county of Donegal to talk about her aspirations to be a poster girl for adaptive women, about the difficulties people with disabilities face when dating, and, she tells us howshe–and how we in turn– can bounce back from setbacks.
Nikki, motivating others must come easy to you because surely you’ve been motivating yourself since you were diagnosed with bone cancer aged 16?
Yes! I’ve had to use what I share with others on myself multiple times before! And to be honest, the last year was probably when I’ve had to pull that trick out of my hat the most. Considering how many surgeries I have had, definitely the last surgery – the rotationplasty – was by far the hardest.
Worse than chemo and two hip replacements?
Yep! Rotationplasty is essentially when they amputate your leg, rotate it 180 degrees and reattach it up higher. The purpose of the surgery for me was because my hip was so damaged from the radiotherapy and then from two hip replacements, which failed, and then from having a plate put in from my hip to my knee to protect my femur after I broke it in 2011. After all those surgeries I was still able to keep going. However, the rotationplasty was so much harder than I thought, mainly due to heightened sensation within the nerves, which I was told could happen.
Can you explain to us what that pain was like?
For a good few months post-op, from about 5.30pm every evening until I went to sleep, the pain would shoot through the roof. I couldn’t even have my leg on a pillow raised, I just had to go lie in bed. It was physically and emotionally exhausting knowing that pain was coming each evening. And I never had a day off. I’ve had varying types of nerve pain since they removed the tumour in 2003 so I’ve lived with nerve pain for a very long time, but this was next level.
Living with that level of pain must be nearly unbearable…
It is and there’s so many documentaries on tv at the moment highlighting people’s reliance on pain medication. And I’m so glad those documentaries are coming out because if I only listened to doctors and didn’t use my own brain, I’d blindly just keep taking pain medication. But, this situation [she points to the leg] is with me for life,andsoIknewIhadto figure a way to get through it without always popping pills because we all know how that will end. And no amount of self-awareness of what you’re taking can stop an addiction. It happens to so many people and it’s not a sign of weakness.
It’s because these medications are so incredibly strong and because they do work to reduce pain.
Exercise was your way through, and thankfully you had this insight from 2013 when you set up your campaign centred around fitness and physical challenges, called Fighting Fit For Ewings. I basically set it up to look at exercise from an experimental point of view to see if it would reduce my pain. As a result of turning to exercise I wasn’t able to eliminate pain completely but I was able to turn things around for myself coming each evening. And I never had a day off. I’ve had varying types of nerve pain since they removed the tumour in 2003 so I’ve lived with nerve pain for a very long time, but this was next level.
Living with that level of pain must be nearly unbearable…
It is and there’s so many documentaries on tv at the moment highlighting people’s reliance on pain medication. And I’m so glad those documentaries are coming out because if I only listened to doctors and didn’t use my own brain, I’d blindly just keep taking pain medication. But, this situation [she points to the leg] is with me for life, and so I knew I had to figure a way to get through it without always popping pills because we all know how that will end. And no amount of self-awareness of what you’re taking can stop an addiction. It happens to so many people and it’s not a sign of weakness. It’s because these medications are so incredibly strong and because they do work to reduce pain.
Exercise was your way through, and thankfully you had this insight from 2013 when you set up your campaign centred around fitness and physical challenges, called Fighting Fit For Ewings.
I basically set it up to look at exercise from an experimental point of view to see if it would reduce my pain. As a result of turning to exercise I wasn’t able to eliminate pain completely but I was able to turn things around for myself. After three months of regular exercise I could see the change, physically and emotionally. It also prepared me for my surgery last year. And as soon as I was able to get up and about after my surgery, I did a half marathon and completed 9kms. That half marathon was also before I got my prosthetic and that was a big deal for me, to go out in public and take part in such a public event without a prosthetic on considering I don’t just have a stump, I have my leg on back-to-front. So I knew I was going to get stares from pretty much everybody.
Getting those stares, what does that feel like?
Thankfully I don’t feel anywhere as self-conscious about it as I did last year. Last year I found it really tough. I would physically start sweating when I’d feel people looking at me and then the internal panic would rise. Like everything it’s hard at the beginning but the more you force yourself to do it, the easier it becomes. A year and a half on if I openly see people look at me, I’ll always smile and make eye contact, which I hope will reassure them too. You can’t live your life getting annoyed with everyone, they are just curious, there is no malice in looking.
Being diagnosed with cancer at 16 is one thing, but losing a limb, what is that like?
I had spent over a decade living with an 11cm leg length discrepancy so with my left foot flat on the ground, my toes on my right foot would only touch the ground. Imagine walking around your house like that, for even 10 minutes, it’s exhausting and it wasn’t a way I wanted to continue to live. The day I got my prosthetic and stood with my two feet – one of them a prosthetic foot – on the ground was the best feeling in almost a decade. My mum and dad were in the room with me at the time and the three of us just cried. It was probably the most powerful part of my entire journey. A big part of the decision making to have this surgery was knowing I’d get that feeling of being grounded with my two feet on the floor. Every time I’m having a hard day I’ll remind myself of that moment. But, once you take your prosthetic off, you are fully an amputee again, and that’s when falls happen. But it’s not if you fall, it’s when. You have to treat a fall just as a setback.
You are a pro by this stage at coming back from setbacks. How do you do it?
It’s just a level of stubbornness that gets me through! If I have surgery I just have this mindset that it’s not going to beat me. People have setbacks all the time and most of the time it’s not body-related. Often it’s financial setbacks, relationship setbacks, whatever, but what I would say is just say to yourself that you have one non-negotiable and that non-negotiable is that there’s no giving up, it’s just not an option. Having a non-negotiable becomes a form of strength you can build on.
Do you ever allow yourself to feel sorry for yourself? Like what about when you were 16-years-old going through chemo and your friends were out doing what teenagers do?
Definitely when I was younger, yes, because I missed out on so much. To this day I still don’t have my Leaving Certificate. I did manage to make it to third level but I only got one year in NUI and then my hip went again. There have been so many setbacks, one after another. I do remember thinking, what’s going on here, do I have incredibly bad luck? Even now the rotationplasty surgeons have said that there’s no sign that this surgery has worked and that the two bones have not yet knitted together. That’s quite a scary prospect. Sometimes on the way home from an appointment the overthinking may take over and it could easily turn into a pity party, but I just don’t let it.
Do you keep yourself busy to combat the overthinking? Because you are always busy.
To be honest that is so true. Coincidentally, I’ve had quite a quiet summer and I really didn’t enjoy it! The more time you have on your hands
the more time you have to think about yourself; you can become quite self- obsessed. I have tools in place so that I don’t fall to far into that way of thinking. This may be a controversial statement but being the sick person in your family you can become quite self-centred. You also become quite used to being the centre of attention, not for reasons that you want, but it’s just a fact, you just require more attention. I do think it’s our responsibility to acknowledge that and to not give in to that. Because that can very easily bleed into every other aspect of your life.
Speaking about other aspects of your life, a further setback followed last year after the breakup of your relationship, two months post-op. That must have been tough…
It was. This surgery was the first surgery that I actually chose to have. Every other surgery was pretty much an emergency. A big part of me being able to make the decision to have this surgery was that I was in a committed relationship, a relationship I thought I’d be in for the rest of my life. So when I went into surgery last year, I went in thinking I would have support all last year, but within two shorts months
my relationship broke down, all within the space of a day.
That was a dark day…
It was. The relationship broke down because the other person couldn’t handle the stress that was associated with my recovery. Now maybe that’s partly my fault; I’m so used to dealing with surgeries and so are my family. I could be about to go under anaesthetic and my family and I could be falling around the place laughing; that’s the way we deal with these huge things. Just because you’re going through a serious time doesn’t mean every minute of every day has to be serious. If anything we try to find moments of laughter to keep our spirits up. My partner was different and he carried the world on his shoulders. He just couldn’t shift the worry.
Is this story part of the wider picture that people with disabilities face when dealing with dating and relationships?
I think so. Entering a relationship as somebody with a disability is difficult. We’ve moved forward so much, thank god. Being inclusive is in mainstream media now and brands want to be seen to be inclusive, it’s almost fashionable and I am all for it. I’m even happy to be the token disabled person
if it means more people will see versions of themselves through me. But, to go back to dating, trying to make eye contact with a man on the street when they see my leg is nearly impossible! The dating scene is definitely tricky. And with my leg I do find it hard to sit at a table comfortably so a dinner date is out!
A good first date for you would be trekking up a mountain. Some of the stuff you have accomplished Nikki is astonishing (the first person to climb four Irish mountain peaks on crutches in 32 hours; the first woman to abseil off Fanad Head Lighthouse)…
I was also the first female on crutches to trek the 24kms on the Brecon Beacons mountain range, in Wales. It’s an endurance event organised by FAF soldiers. I also scaled the route of a glacier in Iceland. And, then the VHI Women’s Marathon was a big deal for me because I got to finish it. Also because I passed St Vincent’s Hospital during the race and that holds many memories for me. That’s where I had my cancer treatment, it’s where I had my femur surgery, it’s where I had to sit in a hospital bed for weeks and look out at people living their best lives. To walk past and not go in, I literally bawled. There have been lots of wonderfully positive experiences like that but I hope I’m just getting started.
We get it now when you say your life has been weird and wonderful. Because without the lows you don’t see the highs.
And even within the lows there’s loads of highs! Trying to find the funny moments during despair is not something people do a lot, but they should try. For example, for anybody that’s going through chemotherapy now, the hours will feel endless, like you’re wasting time. But there’s so much you can do while you’re hooked up: go on your phone, book a holiday, give yourself something to look forward to.
What’s next on your cards?
Until I get my next prosthetic, which will be delivered to me in mid-October, I am a bit limited in that I can hike up mountains but I cannot come back down! But once I can, I plan to explore Wicklow. I think that will be my winter fun!