Nikki Bradley on the highs and lows of her biggest challenge yet: amputation
25th May 2023
Cancer survivor and adaptive adventurer Nikki Bradley is recovering from her biggest challenge yet: amputation. As she reflects on the highs and lows of her journey, her future – like her positive outlook – shines bright.
Photography by Jay Doherty.
Today is a good day for Nikki Bradley. A nurse has just left her home in Donegal, declaring her surgery wound officially healed. “It feels more normal now to not have medical personnel coming in and out. It feels like a big step,” she says.
There are tough recovery days and physiotherapy ahead, but adventurous Nikki, 36, is used to a challenge. Her recent surgery, rotationplasty, involved the amputation of Nikki’s hip and thigh. Her lower leg was then rotated 180 degrees and her knee attached to the hip socket. Nikki will be fitted with a prosthetic leg later this year, where her rotated foot will act as a knee joint.
Diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, at the age of 16, Nikki recalls standing in her school uniform to receive the news. “Everything happened very quickly. It was panic stations over Christmas.”
Nikki then underwent gruelling chemotherapy and six weeks of radiotherapy, losing her hair, eyebrows, and sense of taste and smell. An orange-sized tumour in her hip was removed, but severe nerve damage resulted. In between two hip replacements, Nikki’s femur shattered.
“I came out the other end, and I’m cancer-free,” says Nikki. “On tough days, I remind myself of that.”
However, with increasing pain and decreasing quality of life, Nikki made the difficult decision to opt for rotationplasty surgery.
When Nikki was told by her consultant in 2013 that she would be on crutches for the rest of her life, it was a turning point. Shortly afterward, she set up Fighting Fit for Ewing’s to raise awareness and set herself physical challenges to complete. Nikki’s achievements are impressive: scaling glaciers, climbing mountains, volunteering in Tanzania, a world record attempt, and abseiling down a lighthouse. When you remember that she did it all on crutches, you understand her determination.
Nikki recalls the 4 Peaks Challenge: “It was gruelling. Four back-to-back mountains. Mentally and physically exhausting, but the feeling of achievement and pride afterward – with my family there to greet us. It felt powerful in so many ways.”
It takes time to feel confident in your own skin. One of the big life lessons was to keep saying to myself not to worry about what others think.
RISK AND REWARD
As challenges go, her recent surgery is her toughest yet. However, Nikki demonstrates bravery. “There’s been guilt. I worried about it going wrong. I was told very openly that there’s no guarantees with this.”
Because her hip is damaged, all surgical options presented to Nikki came with huge risks. “My worries were that I made this decision and if it didn’t work, everyone who has been helping me to recover, all their hard work would be for nothing. Thankfully so far, it’s going the way it’s meant to be going.”
Nikki worried about people’s reaction to her appearance post-surgery, yet her 20-year cancer battle has taught her some valuable life lessons. “It takes time to feel confident in your own skin. One of the big life lessons was to keep saying to myself not to worry about what others think.”
Nikki was able to go to her school debs and recalls her internal struggle. “The treatment took my appearance away from me. I started to feel like I was losing myself. I felt like I looked like an alien. Throughout all of this, my confidence has been battered black and blue. There were so many different occasions that tested everything and really shook my confidence. Finding my way back to my old self took a huge amount of time.”
When I ask who her biggest cheerleader is, Nikki describes her friend Liz. “She’s the one person, day or night, you can text, and she’d jump in her car and come down.” Nikki explains how supportive her family has been. “We were close anyway, but it brought us that little bit closer. I’ve been so lucky to have this support network around me.”
Nikki jokes about being limited to pyjama bottoms and jogging pants. “I took them out of the wardrobe with extra violence. They’ll end up in the charity shop.” She’s grateful that her friend has a sewing machine and is going to widen her wardrobe horizons. When I point out that her sense of humour must have helped her to cope, she says, “My family are the same. We could be facing a really serious situation and someone will crack a joke and break the tension in the room. It’s just the way I am. I consider my sense of humour to be hugely important.”
SHARING THE JOURNEY
Nikki’s Instagram account @Nikki_Bradley_speaks has a strong following, where she shares her experience to help others. “I’m very open. People get to know me well, all the ups and downs are there.”
Nikki hopes that her account is relevant and helpful to anyone facing similar challenges. “I’m hoping my own content will show the good but also be realistic. It’s not all sunshine and roses… especially post-op. I’m still very much figuring it all out. I will continue to share real updates to help others. Opening up and sharing personal details is not easy but when done right, it can help others.”
This framed patch was presented to Nikki when she completed the gruelling 24km Fan Dance march in Wales in 2017 – on crutches!
During her three-week stay at Birmingham hospital following the surgery, Nikki was not permitted visitors, apart from a brief visit from her mother. “Not to have family with me at the most vulnerable time… Covid took that away. It made the hospital stay so much harder.” As Nikki focuses on her recovery, she looks forward to being “back on her feet again”. Nikki will meet prosthesis specialists in Dublin to discuss fitting a prosthetic leg. “To have my balance back will be amazing,” smiles Nikki, who’s hoping that more movement in the hip will allow her to master a winter sport such as skiing. “But first, I just want to be able to walk and get my balance back!”
To learn more about Nikki’s incredible journey, visit her website, themotivationfactory.ie and follow her on Instagram @Nikki_Bradley_speaks.
This article originally appeared in the Summer issue of IMAGE Magazine.