“I’ve had so many scans,” Nikkel said, with a laugh. “Whenever I’m in them, I always wonder how it works and how I can make it better.”
The 19-year-old mechanical engineering student at the University of Nevada, Reno, genuinely wants to make things better and she has the right attitude for it — positive.
Nikkel, originally from Mesquite, Nev., was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer that typically affects adolescents during periods of rapid growth, when she was 11 years old.
Since then, it’s been a long road of chemotherapy treatments, extended hospital trips and finally the amputation of her right leg just above her knee, leaving her with a prosthetic.
Now cancer-free, Nikkel took her very own survivor lap Friday night at the American Cancer Society’s fundraiser for cancer research, Relay for Life, at Mackay Stadium at UNR, where participants stay up all night “because cancer never sleeps.”
The following Saturday, sitting in her sunny dorm room adorned with photos, artwork and her Johnny Depp movie collection, Nikkel said the only thing she has to complain about is her lack of sleep.
“I love sleeping in,” Nikkel said, spoken like a true college student. “I don’t like stairs, though. My biggest beef with life is stairs.”
Nikkel stops to laugh again, which brings her to her next point.
“My friends always tell me that I smile a lot,” she said. “But I always wonder, what if I didn’t smile? Because once you stop smiling, you give up.”
Today, Nikkel volunteers regularly with the American Cancer Society for an annual summer camp program in Arizona, helping other child patients with cancer realize that they can’t give up either.
“It’s really about the kids letting go for a week,” Nikkel said, recalling her own trouble with sleeping at hospitals and the endless tests that can burden children. “You have to hang on to the ride though.”
In Nikkel’s case, her ride was anything but smooth. Eight years ago, what was thought to be a muscle pull in her leg suddenly became life or death when doctors found a golf-ball sized tumor below her knee. Later, after chemotherapy sessions began, doctors found another tumor, this time in her right ankle, indicating that much of her leg between the two hot spots was infested with cancer.
“When I was told my only option was to amputate my leg, I didn’t cry,” Nikkel said. “I just knew it was something I had to do. You do what you have to do. I actually didn’t cry until I saw my dad cry.”
Living with a prosthetic leg today, Nikkel keeps an even temper about it, showing off her “Cancer Sucks” graffiti style logo at the base of it near her thigh. Certain activities like rollerblading and snowboarding Nikkel said she would love to be able to do someday, but she’s also happy with just being able to walk around.
“I’m thankful for life,” Nikkel said. “I think everybody really takes that for granted sometimes.”
When asked what she’s learned from this experience, Nikkel takes a moment to sit back and think.
“I don’t know, really,” Nikkel said. “I never asked, ‘Why me?’ I just knew it was something I had to do. I would do it all over again. I want that experience. It’s made me who I am today.”