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June 26, 2022

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Vancouver woman faces her cancer by always looking for silver lining

By , Columbian Breaking News Reporter
6 Photos
Before her weekly chemotherapy sessions, Adrienne San Nicolas bought decorations, games and toys at the Dollar Store for parties in the chemo suite. Her friends, other patients and nurses all donned leis for this party, which had a tropical theme.
Before her weekly chemotherapy sessions, Adrienne San Nicolas bought decorations, games and toys at the Dollar Store for parties in the chemo suite. Her friends, other patients and nurses all donned leis for this party, which had a tropical theme. (Photo provided by Adrienne San Nicolas) Photo Gallery

She was happily married, a stepmother to a compassionate 9-year-old boy and fulfilled by her job as a chiropractic assistant. But in the spring of 2015, Adrienne San Nicolas knew something was missing.

“I felt that even though I was happy, I was so unhappy,” she said. “I didn’t have that thing that gets you going every day. I love my job, I love my family, but it was hard for me to get out of bed. I didn’t have that thing that gives you that drive.”

So San Nicolas, 34 at the time, furiously prayed to find her purpose. It wasn’t until a few months later that she felt a lump in her breast. A round of tests confirmed her fear: breast cancer.

“I just heard that still, small voice saying, ‘this is it,’ ” she said. “I’m like, what do you mean, this is it? This is my purpose? What am I supposed to do with this?”

She cried when she got the news, but after about an hour, the Vancouver woman said she came to terms with the new reality.

10 Photos
Adrienne San Nicolas said that she turned her Wednesday chemotherapy sessions into a party every week. When she lost her hair, San Nicolas wore a red-and-white striped shirt for a "Where's Baldo?" party.
Confronting Breast Cancer: Positively a fighter Photo Gallery

“The diagnosis brings such a weird peace. Even though it’s such a terrible diagnosis, there’s this peace about it that … it is what it is,” she said. “You’ve got to make the best of it, whether it’s terminal or whether it’s curable, you’re the one who has to live the rest of this life, so either you choose to make it a good life and be thankful and happy or you choose to allow it to take over you.”

Early on, San Nicolas made that choice, deciding to do her best to see every step along the way as an opportunity to find joy in the circumstance.

“I just feel it’s my God-given purpose to walk this journey and be able to be a support for others,” she said.

While undergoing chemotherapy at Compass Oncology — 16 rounds over 22 weeks — she started turning the treatments into weekly themed parties. Before every chemo session, she stopped by the Dollar Store and picked up games, decorations and toys.

During her party-like-an-animal chemo session, she and other patients played animal-themed games. When she wasn’t allowed to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, San Nicolas threw a garden party. When she lost her hair, she came into the chemo suite wearing a red-and-white striped shirt and had a “Where’s Baldo?” party.

“I’d try to make people laugh,” she said. “I got in trouble a few times because I was a little too loud. I brought whistles in once,” she said with a sheepish look.

Every time she sat down for treatment, she remembered how it felt to be “the lonely girl in the chemo chair,” she said.

“I made it a point every chemo to meet someone new. Several women came in, and I could tell it was their first time and I’d say, ‘Oh come sit by me! Come sit by me!’ ” San Nicolas said. “It’s scary, it’s overwhelming, it’s frustrating. … It’s all these emotions that you can’t process all at once.”

She said that many people came up to her later and thanked her, telling her, “if it weren’t for you at my first chemo, I don’t know where I’d be.”

“To me, that’s the rewarding part of it. That’s the purpose coming through,” San Nicolas said.

Confronting Breast Cancer

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During her first surgery, doctors went in to remove the tumor and found that the chemotherapy had turned all of the cancer into scar tissue. She calls herself lucky, but said she believes that her attitude likely had something to do with it.

“Your mind and your body are not separate,” she said. “If you are happy and you believe that things can be better, that this is going to bring good, you’re going to do so much better with your treatment.”

Since then, San Nicolas has had a double mastectomy, more than 20 rounds of radiation, a hysterectomy and a latissimus dorsi flap procedure — an operation that takes an oval flap of skin and muscle from the upper back to reconstruct the breast. She is still undergoing a series of breast reconstruction surgeries.

While she strived to stay positive, San Nicolas said that some days were easier than others. Through it all, she said, she allowed herself to feel each emotion as it came.

For example, during chemotherapy she discovered she was positive for the BRCA2 gene mutation, meaning she and her family have a higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Her sister learned she had the gene mutation and had a hysterectomy and is considering a mastectomy. For San Nicolas, the diagnosis meant her dreams of ever having her own children were crushed.

“I allowed myself to cry, to be angry, to be sad, to doubt,” she said. “But then the next day I got back up and I believed that it was going to be OK. I think we should be encouraging others to do that. It’s OK to have your down time, you’re allowed to struggle; let’s make tomorrow a better day.”

When she is asked whether she is cured of cancer, San Nicolas answers that she’s cancer-free — for now. She has met too many patients going through their second and third fight with the disease to say for sure that it won’t come back.

Either way, she said, she knows she’s not finished with her purpose.

She has been advised not to volunteer until she is a year out of treatment, but said when that time comes she plans to get involved. San Nicolas said she wants to see programs focused on the mental health of the patients, something that promotes the camaraderie that she had and still has.

San Nicolas, now 36, meets regularly with a group of women she met along her fight. They get meals or go on walks, expressing complaints and giving encouragement.

“My desire to meet and help people brought me a support that I could have never imagined,” she said. “I don’t think anybody should go through this alone.”

Though cancer is a disease that takes lives, San Nicolas calls her diagnosis a blessing because it defined her purpose and opened her up to opportunities to help others.

“When I was praying for a purpose, I didn’t want cancer, that’s not what I was praying for,” she said. “It wasn’t the cancer that I got. It was a new life. It was blessings.”

Columbian Breaking News Reporter

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