Only months after having her chest cut open for heart surgery, a southside woman faced another diagnosis: breast cancer.

Nearing the end of her seven-month recovery from open heart surgery, Nicole Osborne began to notice small changes in her breasts.

She didn’t give the changes much thought at first. She had just been cleared to begin working out again after her heart surgery, so Osborne expected some physical changes to her body. A couple of months passed before she scheduled an appointment with a doctor to get checked out.

“I noticed some changes happening in my chest, but I had been working out, and I had been lifting weights, which I wasn’t allowed to do before heart surgery,” she said. “So I didn’t think anything of it until we found a lump in my breast.”

She left for a family vacation in April 2016 to visit relatives in Florida, with a doctor’s appointment to get the lump checked out the first day she was back.

Her heart surgery in 2015 hadn’t been a complete surprise given her family’s medical history, but a breast cancer diagnosis was a shock, since neither Osborne’s mother nor her grandmothers had the disease, she said.

After multiple surgeries over the course of several years, Osborne, 36, has an incision down her chest from open heart surgery, several small, circular scars leftover from drainage tubes and others on her side from plastic surgery to reconstruct her breasts.

“It has given me a ton of life experience. It makes you realize how short life is and how thankful you are for each moment you get with each person you’re able to be with.”

The cancer diagnosis came at a time while their family was still recovering from Nicole’s heart surgery, her husband Chad Osborne said.

“We hadn’t quite really caught our breath,” Chad Osbourne said. “We were on our way, starting to get back to normalcy, routine. We were just starting to get things homed in.”

Finding ways to laugh has helped Osborne deal with two situations where she didn’t know if she would die.

Once hair started falling out from chemotherapy, Osborne decided to get ahead of it by shaving her head. Her daughter, Caylee, got the first chunk out right down the middle with an electric razor.

“We set up shop by the house,” she said. “Caylee took a big chunk out of the middle. We videotaped it. We just made it a fun thing, because why make it anything other than that.”

Prior to getting her head shaved, Nicole Osborne had gotten her hair cut short into a fohawk — something she had always wanted to do.

“I figured, ‘Why not?’” Osborne said.

Fast action

The turn-around from initial checkup to diagnosis was speedy.

Nicole Osborne went to the hospital by herself that Monday morning for her initial check-up, and it soon became clear from the testing that something might be wrong.

“I’ve decided ultrasounds are the absolute worst test ever, because everyone is talking to everybody and you hear all this clicking and nobody tells you anything and you are laying there with the worst possible thing that could happen on your mind,” she said.

After the ultrasound, doctors performed a biopsy.

Less than 24 hours passed from the moment she stepped into the cancer center at Community Hospital South to when she received the heartbreaking diagnosis of cancer.

“I don’t know if I cried while I was on the phone with the nurse, but I got off the phone and I was in the fetal potion just screaming at God,” she said. “I was really mad at him. I couldn’t imagine a whole new medical journey after I had just gotten through something I had been scared of for seven years.”

As hard as it was to hear that she had cancer, getting the news sooner, rather than later, was a relief, Nicole Osborne said.

Doctors got test results and information to her as quickly as possibility, which helped reduce the anxiety in what was already a nerve-wracking situation, she said.

“On the outside, my appearance is completely different, but on the inside, I feel like it has made me a stronger person.”

“They don’t want patients to wait,” she said.

Nicole Osborne went in for her first test on a Monday morning. Tuesday evening, she was meeting with a doctor who was walking her through her treatment.

“I feel like that was really helpful in getting me from the devastating point, and I’m so angry with God for putting this on me to, ‘OK, this is where we are at, and this is what we have to do,’” she said.

The support from friends and family was immediately overwhelming.

For several months after Nicole Osborne’s diagnosis, a friend or family member was doing something to help on a daily basis, whether that was bringing over a home-cooked meal or helping watch her young daughter. She could count on flowers, cookies, cupcakes, meals and other sorts of inspirational gifts being left on her doorstep.

One friend put together a picture book titled, “You’re not alone,” where people Nicole Osborne knew had shared photos, inspirational sayings and Bible verses.

To help cover the cost of the $5,000 deductible for her insurance, one of Nicole Osborne’s friends, Alison McDaniel, organized a fundraiser at her Greenwood business, RaeLynn’s Boutique, where she donated half of her sales for the day and hosted a silent auction.

“It is hard to accept something like that from other people,” Nicole Osborne said. “It was very humbling.”

A ukulele band was brought in to play with Nicole Osborne, who also plays the instrument, a feat that was a challenge to pull off as a surprise. Her husband had to sneak the instrument to the fundraiser in their car without his wife noticing.

Familiar setting

Nicole Osborne was no stranger to hospitals and surgery when her treatment for breast cancer began.

Her father had gone through open heart surgery to repair an aneurysm about a decade ago, and Nicole Osborne had always known she’d need to keep an eye on her own heart in case she ever developed the same problem.

But she kept putting off any exams until she became pregnant with her daughter. She got the testing done herself and found that, like her father, she had a heart aneurysm that would likely need to be fixed with surgery. Her father had a stroke as a result of his aneurysm.

For the next seven years, she had regular checkups to monitor the aneurysm. In September 2015, doctors found that it had grown from 3.8 to 5.1 cm, a sign that surgery to repair it was needed soon, Nicole Osborne said.

The next month, she traveled to the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, where she could be treated by the same surgeon who did her father’s open heart surgery. What followed was months of recovery, much of which she spent in a wheelchair because she wasn’t able to do strenuous activities. On Halloween that year, she wore a Wonder Woman blanket as her 7-year-old daughter went trick-or-treating.

The hardest part of cancer for Nicole Osborne was when the treatment ended.

Chemotherapy began in May 2016, followed by radiation. During the first week of December, she had a double mastectomy, followed by a six-month wait for plastic surgery to reconstruct her breasts.

“They don’t prepare you for that,” Nicole Oborne said. “You stop and think, ‘Then now what? What I am supposed to do? How do I know it isn’t there? Isn’t it going to come back?’ You have all these things going through your mind.”

She’ll have follow-up exams every six months, monthly injections and a daily pill to limit her estrogen production, steps that will help prevent the cancer from coming back.

“Cancer is still a big part of your life even after treatment, you still think about it, getting tests and taking medicine,” she said.

Now, Nicole Osborne wonders what’s in store for her next.

Prior to heart surgery, she had worked as a substitute teacher, sold custom jewelry and had published a short children’s book.

“Now that I am through treatment, I’m looking for something different than what I ever thought I would do before,” she said.

On the list of options she is considering: working for a program that provides mentoring to woman diagnosed with cancer and writing for a magazine.

“God wanted me here for a reason, so I’m trying to fulfill my purpose by staying positive,” she said.

Nicole Osborne

Age: 36

Residence: Indianapolis

Date diagnosed: April 13, 2016

Type of cancer: Breast cancer

Treatment: Chemotherapy, radiation and a double-mastectomy

What cancer taught me: “It has given me a ton of life experience. It makes you realize how short life is and how thankful you are for each moment you get with each person you’re able to be with.”

How cancer changed me: “On the outside, my appearance is completely different, but on the inside, I feel like it has made me a stronger person.”

What I would tell someone: “When people contact me, I like to give them space. I’m here when you’re ready to talk. I’m ready to listen, not talk.”

Author photo
Jacob Tellers is a reporter at the Daily Journal. He can be reached at jtellers@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2702.