She was 25 years old and pregnant with her first child—the picture of health, happiness, and the potential of life. But Nicole Davis had no idea that she’d developed a relentless form of cancer that was, in a cruel twist, aggravated by her pregnancy.
As 2011 approached, Nicole looked forward to putting cancer behind her for good. At the same time, she wasn’t the person she was before the illness, and she didn’t want to be. Not only did she appreciate her husband and child more than she could have imagined, she also felt a profound connection to the few other young survivors she’d come to know, and there was a certain strength and sisterhood that she didn’t want to forget. She and Tyler spent New Year’s Eve with a friend, a tattoo artist who, in Nicole’s honor, attempted to break the Guinness World Record for the number of tattoos done in a 24-hour period. He wound up shy of the record (801) at 656. Nicole left with five pink ribbons near her ribs, while Tyler’s tattoo covered his entire right side: a chain of Celtic-style ribbons linked to form one huge ribbon.
On the afternoon of January 24, Tyler paced in the waiting room at Exempla Saint Joseph Hospital. He and a half-dozen family members had been there since 6 a.m. Because radiation had reduced blood flow to the breast area and made it less able to heal, implants weren’t an option for Nicole. Dr. Royal Gerow, a plastic surgeon, would remove fatty tissue from each side of her belly and fashion it into breasts, which required a tedious process to link the microscopic blood vessels in the transplanted tissue to the ones in her chest. Tyler supported the mastectomy, but left the reconstruction up to her. “I don’t care if you have boobs” was how he put it. “I just want you.”
It was past midnight when Gerow finally emerged to say he was done and Nicole was doing well. The surgery had taken 18 hours. Nicole was groggy for most of the next day. She sat in a hospital bed, hooked up to an IV pole and surrounded by “Get well!” balloons and fresh flowers. Underneath her gown, the thick, ruddy incisions that snaked across her belly and encircled each breast resembled a giant, unsmiling face.
One day, not long after the procedure, the surgeon who removed her breast tissue came to her hospital room. “Nicole,” the doctor said, “you’re never going to regret this decision.” Nicole looked at her, waiting to see what she meant. When they removed the breast tissue, the doctor said, they found and removed a lump. She paused, and Nicole, dazed from exhaustion and pain medications, strained to comprehend what she was saying. “It tested positive for cancer,” the surgeon said. The doctor handed her a copy of the pathology report. Dated 1/26/2011, it read, “Invasive carcinoma with combined ductal and lobular features. 1.2 cm size.” Nicole’s first reaction was Thank God I had the surgery. The surgeon assured Nicole that she’d removed the entire tumor. Her oncologist, Dr. Azar, was out of town but would contact Nicole when she returned. While she waited a week to meet with Azar, Nicole busied herself by watching American Idol, giggling at the videos her mother-in-law sent of Abbey banging away on a piano and talking on the phone. She told her family and friends about the new lump but assured them the surgeon had removed all of it. She had fleeting thoughts about what it might mean.
The incisions ached where gravity tugged at them, but the pain lessened each day. She couldn’t lift anything, though, for six weeks. When relatives brought Abbey home, the toddler sprinted upstairs. Nicole heard her before she saw her. “Mama!” Abbey squealed in a high-pitched voice. When she burst into the room and saw her mother sitting on a couch in the family room, Abbey was so excited she could barely breathe. Nicole hated that she couldn’t reach down and pull her daughter onto her lap.
Tyler placed Abbey onto the couch. They explained again that Mommy had been at the doctor’s, and that Abbey would need to be gentle. As Nicole hugged her daughter for the first time in a week, she felt hot tears spill down her cheeks. Abbey, now almost two, looked up, her hazel eyes filled with sorrow. “Be happy, Mama,” she said.