Nicole Richards was winding down a special day when, on a freezing winter’s night in 2000, her young life took a dramatic turn.
She was a senior at Perry Meridian High School and one of the state’s top high school gymnasts. She had an athletic scholarship to Ball State University. She had spent the day in Muncie with two friends, watching her future teammates — the Cardinals’ gymnastics team — compete in a home meet.
Richards remembers weather conditions on the drive home were not the best. Black ice dotted the highway. Twenty-two vehicles were involved in a pileup.
Richards was the only one who suffered serious injuries.
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A passenger in one of the vehicles, she suffered a spinal cord fracture and had to be transported by medical helicopter for lifesaving treatment.
She survived, but life as she knew it would never be the same.
“I’ve been in a wheelchair every day since,” she said. “That was February of 2000.”
As devastating as that event was, paralysis would not be Richards’ toughest trial. That began in October 2013, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
In the months since, Richards — now a 32-year-old Greenwood resident — has undergone debilitating rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatment, an especially grueling ordeal for a patient who is paralyzed from the chest down.
But her story doesn’t end there. In many ways, it’s just the beginning.
Her outlook for a sunny ending is irrepressible. So is her desire to share her story with others.
That’s why she’s one of 17 central Indiana ambassadors for the Susan G. Komen Central Indiana Race for the Cure on April 18 in Indianapolis.
As an ambassador, Richards tells her story in public ways not only to help promote the race, which is the main goal, but to offer much-needed support for other women battling breast cancer, especially new patients. Her message is one of hope, encouragement and triumph.
Diagnosed a little more than a year ago with Stage 3 invasive ductal carcinoma, she recently completed all of her major treatment, is in full remission and is back to full-time work for the U.S. Department of Defense in Indianapolis, where she’s been employed since 2005.
“I am in complete remission, so I’m cancer-free,” Richards said. “That’s the most important part.”
But the road to recovery was anything but smooth.
In the past year, Richards underwent an intense battery of chemotherapy, radiation treatment and surgeries, including a mastectomy and reconstructive procedures that still are ongoing.
Of all that she endured, the chemo took the heaviest toll.
“Chemotherapy was absolutely horrible. The drugs and I didn’t really get along that great. And being in a wheelchair just made it that much harder, because I can’t just jump into bed on my own when I don’t feel well. I can’t lay down when I feel dizzy, or I can’t run to the bathroom when the drugs take effect,” Richards said.
“So I couldn’t do all of that on my own, so I relied on my family members a lot. So not only was it hard on me, it was hard on my family.”
Her family, including mother, Donna, younger sister, Allison, younger brother, Danny, and a host of aunts and uncles helped her endure — and overcome — the personal tragedies of the past 15 years, Richards said.
After her accident, she lived with her mother and siblings until 2006, when she moved into an accessible home in Greenwood. Built by the Samantha’s House Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps improve living conditions for disabled people, the house finally allowed Richards to live independently.
Relying on faith, family
When she got the cancer diagnosis, Richards had intense feelings of despair — even after all she had gone through since that night of Feb. 18, 2000.
But in the end, she fought cancer with the same indomitable spirit as paralysis. Neither one conquered her.
“Without my family and all of my friends, I couldn’t have done either one. I have the biggest support group. And then also my faith. I’ve always been pretty religious. Right after my car accident, I relied a lot on my faith to get me through. And then the same with the breast cancer,” Richards said.
“There were nights that I couldn’t sleep and days that I was just so sick and I just felt that I was never going to get through it. And during those times I just prayed a lot, and I think that really helped. So between the family and the friends and my faith, I think that’s what kind of got me through all this.”
And now, as a Komen ambassador, she wants to help other breast cancer patients. She points to her own life as an example.
Richards, who received her degree from Ball State in 2005, has worked in human resources for the Department of Defense for 10 years. She serves on the Samantha’s House Foundation board of directors. She is a licensed Indiana High School Athletics Association gymnastics official. She is a judge for USA Gymnastics. She’s a Britney Spears fan and an Indianapolis Colts fan and has been a model in the Project Pink Fashion Show.
Above all, she’s a survivor. She has a story to tell, and she wants to offer hope to others by telling it.
“I think that that’s really important for a newly diagnosed (patient), that as bad as it may seem, tomorrow is a different day, and things will get better. As difficult and as hard as something is one day, the next day things are going to turn around, and you’ll be OK,” she said.
“That’s kind of my message that I want to put out there.”
Name: Nicole Richards
Family: Mother, Donna Richards; sister, Allison Richards, 26; brother, Danny Richards, 24.
Distinction: Is one of 17 breast cancer survivors serving as Komen central Indiana ambassadors for the April 18 Susan G. Komen Central Indiana Race for the Cure in Indianapolis
Date of diagnosis: Oct. 25, 2013.
Diagnosis: Invasive ductal carcinoma.
Prognosis: In full remission.
Takeaway message: “I have learned that life is a gift. Don’t take a single day for granted. As horrible as today may be, tomorrow will be better.”
“I couldn’t do all of that on my own, so I relied on my family members a lot. So not only was it hard on me, it was hard on my family.”
Nicole Richards, on battling breast cancer