When diagnosed with cancer for the first time at age 21, Nicole McKinnon of Corner Brook had a very good reason to live. She wasn’t about to leave her three-month-old son, Brayden Young, without a mother.
There were times during her battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the 26-year-old said, when she felt death would be an easier choice than life. When those thoughts would come to her, all she needed to do was think about her son and her fighting instinct would kick in.
“I always say now if it hadn’t been for Brayden I don’t think I would have fought so hard,” McKinnon said. “I’m sure I would have tried but some days — I almost had enough — but when you have a baby you just fall madly in love with him. And he was so tiny. I just couldn’t image letting him grow up without me.”
McKinnon knew during her pregnancy that something was terribly wrong — something well beyond morning sickness and the other symptoms that pregnant women often feel.
When she broke out in chickenpox-like itchy marks on her body, her doctor told her she had “the pregnancy itch.”
Yet McKinnon knew what she was doing through wasn’t normal.
“I used to say to Mom (Marie Quilty) when I was pregnant, ‘Mom, I got cancer.’ She used to get right upset with me,” she said. “But I knew there was no woman in the world, being pregnant, would go through what I was going through. It’s impossible.”
Just months after her son was born, McKinnon’s skin condition worsened. She was admitted to the Western Memorial Regional Hospital in Corner Brook where specialists began looking at her condition.
When one of the doctors noticed a lump on the young mother’s neck, he didn’t hold back his thoughts.
“He said, ‘that lump there, I bet it’s cancer.’ I hadn’t even had any tests done by then,” she said.
McKinnon said her father, Russell McKinnon, who was in the room at the time, turned white.
“It was horrible. I was upset, but I wasn’t really shocked,” she said when a biopsy confirmed she not only had Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but that the cancer was in her neck, chest and spleen.
McKinnon spent almost a year undergoing chemotherapy at the Health Sciences Centre.
Her parents moved to St. John’s to look after Brayden while her husband, Scott Young, stayed at home in Corner Brook much of the time to work.
“Looking back now, I was so sick, my mom and my dad practically raised Brayden for the first two years,” McKinnon said. “They both went to St. John’s with me and Brayden. They are divorced, but they moved in together to be there for me and Brayden. That goes to show what type of family I have.”
In addition to the hospital in St. John’s, McKinnon was also treated at the Western Regional Memorial Hospital.
She fought hard and felt she’d won the battle, only to have the cancer return about four years ago.
After a few rounds of chemotherapy, doctors determined the drug was not effective in fighting her cancer. A stem cell transplant — using her own stem cells — was considered her best option for survival.
While the recovery process took about six months, McKinnon said the transplant finally cured her cancer.
“And after I recovered, it was like I had a new life,” she said.
A second child
McKinnon and her husband recently welcomed a second addition to their family. Their daughter Sydney Young was born on Feb. 15. Her five-year-old brother loves her a lot, hers mother said.
During a recent checkup in St. John’s, McKinnon got the news she’s been waiting to hear.
“I had all my tests done here in Corner Brook before I went to St. John’s,” McKinnon said. “The doctor reviewed them and said everything came back normal. He discharged me as a patient, and he told me and my mom that I’m actually now allowed to call myself cancer-free. My mom didn’t know whether to scream or cry. But she cried.”
Recalling her battles with cancer, McKinnon said while she fought the disease physically, the support of family and friends, helped her get through it mentally.
“I used to get a break to come home for a couple of days. My family and my aunts and my uncles were at Marble Mountain with signs cheering that I was coming down the highway,” McKinnon laughed.
McKinnon said her husband’s parents, Peggy and Wayne Young, are always there to help with the children.
“I have a wonderful relationship with them,” she said.
Supporting young adults with cancer
She also received a great deal of support from Young Adult Cancer Canada (YACC) and attended the organization’s cancer retreat in Lake Louise, Alta., in 2013.
“I think Young Adult Cancer Canada is great. They are constantly asking if they can do anything for you. And at the retreat there were people there who didn’t have any supports at all. So they really depend on Young Adult Cancer Canada to be there for them.”
Geoff Eaton established the group in 2000 (originally as RealTime Cancer) after his first cancer challenge.
Young Adult Cancer Canada (YACC) is based in St. John’s with an office team of 13 across the country to support and educate young adults with cancer.
There are three YACC retreats left to happen in 2014. One takes place in British Columbia in August, another in Newfoundland in September and a third in Ontario in November.
Any young adult with cancer interested in attending the Retreat Yourself Adventure in this province in September can contact YACC through its website at www.youngadultcancer.ca.
The Western Star
* this article has been corrected.