Nikki Bradley: ‘I snapped my femur in half when I fell off a chair’

Nikki Bradley is an adventurer from Donegal. Despite the likelihood of a leg amputation, she has completed an array of challenges, including a British SAS fitness test and scaling an Icelandic glacier. She plans to climb Slieve League this month before taking up skiing.

Nikki Bradley’s story has so many remarkable lows and highs that there is scarcely room to mention many jaw-dropping events.

For example, in 2015 Bradley thought she had smashed the world record for running 5km on crutches, easing up.

However, Guinness had failed to update their website for a record attempt months earlier which ended up being a single second faster than Bradley.

Her lesson from that: “Every second counts.”

Q: Your consultant said you’re one of less than 10 people worldwide to have lived your experience of Ewing’s Sarcoma. Tell me about that diagnosis…

A: The series of events that occurred throughout my illness was so unusual surgeons couldn’t find another case that was a carbon copy of my own to help me. My first diagnosis was Ewing’s Sarcoma, which is a rare form of bone cancer.

Q: What did the treatment involve?

A: It was 12 cycles of chemotherapy, six before surgery and six after, and six weeks of radiotherapy. The surgery itself was quite invasive – it required 52 metal staples. That year (2002), there were 16 others diagnosed. Of the 16, I don’t know how many survived. Unfortunately, the radiotherapy caused a lot of problems which came to the surface in 2006, with a severely eroded hip. The laser going into the same spot every day for six weeks caused irreversible damage. When most people receive a cancer diagnosis, the worst part is the actual diagnosis but, for me, it was the aftermath of cancer. I’m still dealing with it now, and I’ll likely have to deal with worse down the road.

Q: As that aftermath was developing, when did the adventuring begin?

A: By 2013, I’d had two hip replacements, both of which failed. I’d also snapped my femur in half when I fell off a chair, because the bone was so weak. I now have a metal plate from my hip to my knee, so my right side is very badly damaged.

I had regular trial treatments – spinal-cord stimulation, epidurals, nerve blocks, the works – to try to relieve severe pain caused by nerve damage from my initial surgery in 2003, when the nerves and muscle tissue were cut through to remove the tumour. It was absolutely excruciating at times. It’s the worst pain I’ll likely ever experience. None of the trial treatments would work. The doctors had reached the end of the road and I was told that was as far as they could go with me. In that time without a surgeon, I lost a lot of leg-length. I have an 11cm leg-length discrepancy, which has a huge effect on my daily living. My balance is terrible and daily life is very difficult because of it.

So, I decided to turn to exercise as an experiment. I’d lost a lot of confidence and I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it, but I was determined to give it a go. With that, I set up Fighting Fit For Ewing’s and decided to base my awareness campaign around exercise.

Q: Where did you start?

A: In the early days, we did things like climbing Muckish (in her native Donegal), and minor versions of rock-climbing and abseiling. Over time my confidence grew, and so did my strength. The big turning point was when I started noticing muscle in my arms. That was great because I stopped thinking as much about my leg. The rest of my body was neglected so it was nice to be able to appreciate I had a working body outside of my right leg. It was only when I started adapting my training I realised, ‘Oh, hold on, I can pretty much do the same as everyone else. I just have to do it a slightly different way.’

Q: What have been the highlights?

A: It’s led to me travelling to Iceland to scale a glacier, helped by Ian Parke, Denis Ferry, Leslie O’Donnell and Paul Doherty, and also to abseil into a 45-foot ice cave. I did the Fan Dance in January and I still can’t believe I did it. That’s 24km in the Brecon Beacons, usually reserved for the British SAS at the end of their selection. That was a big achievement because it was so tough and they didn’t want me to do the full thing in one day.

Q: How do you manage the pain?

A: Before I started my campaign in 2013, I was on quite heavy medication. I was on medication for nerve damage and a lot of anti-inflammatories, like Difene. That can be damaging to the organs over time and I felt I was too young to be relying on them. A big part of my adventure into the world of exercise was to see if I could use it as a form of pain management. Honestly, about three months after I started training properly, I was off all medication. I don’t take pain medication now.

I took a severe allergic reaction to Difene about a year-and-a-half ago, after going over on my ankle. I actually went into anaphylactic shock after I took one. That was after years of taking it daily. My body obviously decided enough was enough with the Difene and that’s it – I haven’t been able to use any form of anti-inflammatory since. I’m such a believer in exercise for rehabilitation because of my own experiences and I really would encourage others to at least give it a go if you have any type or pain or arthritis. Gentle exercise can be the thing that helps.

Q: Looking to the future, I read there’s a risk of you losing your leg to amputation. How are you now, physically?

A: A conversation came about early last year where I walked into the consultation room in Birmingham and there was an amputation specialist there, which was very shocking. Even though it had been mentioned in passing, it scared the life out of me. It was a very sad moment because I was hoping I’d have more years before I’d have to have that conversation. Though that shocked me initially, it was a good thing because it allowed me to accept what’s coming. Whether that happens in a year or five years, it all just depends on what my hip decides to do. Currently, my hip is very unstable and once it does dislocate, that’s it. They can’t operate. They can’t put it back in. If the hip dislocates, I’m on a one-way train to amputation-ville.

Q: But you’re planning more adventures?

A: I’ve a challenge coming up later in the year to attempt one-legged skiing, so the chance of falling is quite high. I really want to try it because I’ve never skied in my life but I’m also very aware that one serious or awkward fall could be enough to result in me having to have surgery. I have to be big enough and ugly enough to accept that.

There is that risk there but it also makes me appreciate every day. Because amputation is happening down the line, I see this time as my window of opportunity to do as much as I can, because I don’t know when it could all come crashing down. It’s not that my life would end if I have to have an amputation, I will find adventures out there for amputees and I’m already less scared of the future from speaking to people who are doing absolutely incredible things with one leg or one arm. They’re my inspiration. The skiing may not work at all and I might fail miserably.

But, at the same time, cross-country skiing could work quite easily because it involves holding two poles, and what do I do every day? Maybe I’ve been practicing 10-plus years for this – who knows? That unknown used to scare me in the early days, but now I get quite excited by it. Obstacles should be viewed as opportunities, and I’ve faced enough obstacles in the past to know that. You can turn anything into a positive if you give it a go and get on with it.



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