“ Life is too short, go surfing!
Hailing from Byron Bay, Australia, Nikki Shipard is the first international featured mAss Kicker. With advanced degrees in Health Promotion and Health Education, she is a key player in the young adult cancer survivor movement in Australia. She is currently serving as the Project Coordinator: “New Ways of providing psycho-social support for young adults with cancer in Australia”. Her experiences as a “Leukemia mAss Kicker” gives her both a unique perspective on survivorship and the drive to contribute valuable research data to the adolescent and young adult cancer survivor population. We were lucky enough to track her down and ask her a few questions.
mK: What/ when was your diagnosis? How did you find out about your diagnosis? How old were you?
NS: I was 28 years old when I was diagnosed with Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) on Australia Day 2002 (26th Jan.). I was at work this day when I noticed lots of small dots on my legs that I’d had for a few days were getting worse. Apart from these funny looking dots I was feeling completely normal. Thinking that I had some strange rash, I went to the doctor in my lunch break only to be told in a 10-minute consultation with out a blood test that he thought I might have leukaemia. Within these ten minutes, this doctor had felt my stomach and asked if I had been feeling full? I replied… “yes when I was lying down on my surf board I’d had a funny bloated feeling in my stomach.” He then looked at my legs and after this brief examination and questioning, on my way out of his room he handed me a slip and asked if I could go and have a blood test taken at the local pathology. So with tears streaming down my face, I went to the reception and paid my $60 bill. I walked slowly back to work to tell my boss in a state of shock and disbelief. He recommended I go to his doctor get a second opinion straight away. As I was walking to this next appointment, I was staring at the people in the street eating lunch and enjoying themselves. In my head all I could think was… “why is this happening to me and not any of these people?” The second doctor examined the dots on my legs and then told me he thought it would be highly unlikely for me to have leukaemia, however he did organise a series of blood tests. I had these done and went back to work for the afternoon. I finished work around 6pm and went straight home and told my flat mate what a strange day I had. Nothing else was said of it and life went on normal again until the phone rang at 9pm that night. It was the second doctor saying “sorry but the first doctor was right in his diagnosis”
mK: What were your symptoms?
NS: It was the rash on my legs (caused by low platelet count – 18,000) that initially took me to the Dr. But in hindsight I also had night sweets, bleeding gums, lots of bruises and aching bones. But I just put all this down to being a young, active person and getting a few bruise from surfing and trying to burn the candle at both ends… you know… working full time, socialising, playing sports etc
mK: OK, random questions for you… Do kangaroos run wild over there? Is it illegal to keep one as a pet? Silly Americans like us want to know! Hahaha!
NS: Yes kangaroos (we call them roo’s here) run wild… they are everywhere…all over Australia. You could keep on as a pet if you have a farm I guess, but you might find that the farmer next door shoots your pet one day, as we have a draught over here and there is no green grass, and too many roo’s. Oh yeah, you can also buy roo meat at the supermarket, which is weird because the Kangaroo is Australia’s National symbol on our coat of arms!
mK: What is the difference between Australian Rules football and rugby? Is “football” played there without your hands? Does the term “soccer” exist there?
NS: Aussie Rules has a similar shaped ball and that’s about where the similarities stop. Aussies rules is Australia’s most famous national sport, the ball is kicked, hand balled, punched and bounced around a massive oval. There are 4 goal posts, the middle ones = a goal (6 points) and the outside posts = 1 point only. The average game score is around 100 points in total. Rugby is similar to your Union. Soccer is taking off in Oz now. I actually have a cousin who plays for the Matilda’s – Australia National women’s soccer team. She was even named on the World Team back in 2005 and played in the Athens Olympics at age 15 years!
mK: OK, last stupid question…Is it true that water drains counter clockwise in Australia? (It drains clockwise in Northern America… )
mK: Thank you for clarifying. We saw that referenced in an episode of The Simpsons. Anyways, how did you get involved in cancer advocacy?
NS: Ever since my diagnosis, I have been on a constant and perpetual hunt for support services for someone of my age who has had cancer. I keep finding all these services out there for younger people (kids, teens) and older adults. I can see great cancer support organisations specifically for Young Adults up the age of 40 years operating overseas. I have been continually questioning myself as to” why we can’t have similar organisations here in Australia?” I have now taken some actions in answering this question.
I got involved in Cancer advocacy way back in 2004 when I did a 360km walk and raised 250,000 dollars for my Haematologist to set up a centre that would provide life saving testes for Australia’s blood cancer patients. In 2006 another walk, of the same distance was held and this time I requested that part of the funds go to my home town to help provide and oncology psychologist for cancer patients and their families. This was driven by my own emotional turmoil I was feeling at the time and not being able to access anyone for help.
In 2005, I enrolled in uni in a Health Promotion/Education degree of study, so I could gain expertise and knowledge to help set up support services for cancer patients.
In 2007, I completed the Cancer Council’s NSW Consumer Advocacy Training and have ever since become an active cancer advocate.
In 2008, I enrolled and completed Honours, and wrote a thesis surrounding my study research area of… “The Lived Experience of Young Adults aged 25-44 years and Cancer in Australia”. I did this study to increase knowledge and understanding of an underserviced and underrepresented cancer population here in Australia (and what appears to be worldwide).
mK: Who is your hero/heroes/ who do you look up to?
NS: Petrea King, a lady who runs amazing retreats and programs for cancer patients here in Australia. Back in 2003, I went to one of her 5 day programs at a time when I thought I was going to relapse and she helped me to get through this phase emotionally.
Also my female haematologist, Dr Annabel Tuckfield, who continues the fight for Australia’s blood cancer patients to receive life saving tests in the public hospitals.
mK: You really need people to look up to for direction. What motivates you?
And getting some age appropriate support services for young adults here in Australia.
mK: When was the first time you felt like yourself after your diagnosis?
NS: When I was well enough able to leave my mums house and get back to my old life near the beach… also when I found my partner to share my life with, who accepts my cancer diagnosis and the work that I want to do surrounding cancer support
mK: Yeah, life is really different afterwards… so what makes you laugh, cry, angry?
NS: Laugh… when my dog (Australian Kelpie, which is a sheep dog) does laps on the beach and rounds herself up (instead of rounding up sheep)
Cry… seeing someone else upset
Angry…. People who are disrespectful and rude to older aged people
mK: What was your toughest challenge during or after treatment?
How did you overcome it?
NS: Finding ways to communicate my cancer with others after I was basically removed from society for 3 years. I got over this by getting involved in cancer advocacy work, completing a health degree at uni and doing research young adults and cancer.
mK: OK you have done some amazing work, but honestly, what is your guilty pleasure?
NS: Chocolate mud cake…mmmmmm
mK: mmmmm We lied.. one more random question… If you could be in any era of time, which era would you want to live in and why?
NS: 1970s, the era of the ‘Endless Summer’ so I could cruise the world and surf the best beaches in cool retro clothes on sick, single fin boards. (ps: if you have never seen the movie, The Endless Summer, then get this classic out and watch it… now!)
mK: What do you like to do in your spare time?
NS: Surfing, fishing, camping, gardening
mK: What are you doing now?
NS: Sitting on my lounge room floor eating a bowl of muesli after my morning run answering these questions, then off to work for the day at 9am.
mK: You seem very healthy and have probably figured out a lot. Any advice for people that get daunting diagnoses?
NS: Don’t be scared and think you can’t handle what life throws at you…the body and mind are amazing things that can handle a hell of a lot. Also, when you are faced with adversity, such as a life threatening illness, you get this strength from within that you never knew you had, and this helps you get through it.
mK: Tell us something people probably didn’t know… anything.
NS: I can burp the alphabet
mK: HAHAHA! Burping is the international language! Any parting words for all the mAss Kickers?
NS: Everything in life takes time, don’t fight it, enjoy it!
I will leave you with my own personal quote – “Life is too short, go surfing!”
Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions Nikki! We wish you luck in your future endeavors. We’re sure we haven’t heard the last from you!