This mum has battled three brain tumours. Now, Nadine’s putting her best foot forward for Runher ... be inspired
The Belfast teacher is one of many courageous women taking part in Sunday’s race. Marie Foy tells her astonishing story and also talks to a singer living with bipolar disorder
Published 07/06/2010 | 11:27
All her life Nadine Nicholl has been sporty, healthy and full of energy. She has played hockey for Pegasus, one of Ireland's most successful ladies clubs, and for Ulster. She's also played football for Belfast United and has a job she loves, teaching PE.
So the wind was completely taken out of her sails when she was diagnosed with a large brain tumour at the age of 28.
Nadine, now 39, hadn't been suffering any of the typical symptoms such as headaches and nausea. The first sign of illness was when, out of the blue, she collapsed with an epileptic fit at home.
“This was in June 1999 and I was due to get married to David in July. There was a lot of devastation to deal with — being diagnosed with a brain tumour and having to postpone your wedding, one of the biggest days of your life.
We needed something positive to look forward so we rearranged the wedding for Christmas, at the turn of the Millennium,” Nadine recalls.
“I had surgery and recovered well. But I couldn't play football again because I couldn't head the ball anymore. I did go back to hockey for 18 months and played for the Firsts again. Although I don't think I was the same player — I lost some of the confidence I used to have — it was a personal achievement to feel I had got normality back into my life. I thought ‘That's me, I'm fully better.'”
Eventually Nadine, who lives in Jordanstown, decided to retire from hockey and start a family. But when their eldest son Tom was just a year old Nadine had another seizure. “I was lucky I was at home in the kitchen with David when it happened,” she says.
Scans revealed that the tumour had re-grown and Nadine successfully underwent more surgery.
“I had to rebuild my life for a second time. But I got back to work and was fit and well and happy.
“Then, just as I was reaching that all-important five year mark, which is a really big and encouraging milestone, it came back.
“I had been having headaches for about a month prior to my scan but I didn't entertain the idea the tumour could possibly be back. I had put them down to tiredness coming up to the end of the school term.
“I was completely devastated,” says Nadine, whose boys, Tom and Zach, are now eight and five.
“Knowing I had to go through it all again, I wanted to throw myself off a cliff, I couldn't take it in. I didn't get out of the chair for about three days and hit rock bottom. In a way I'm still in shock. This time I had radiotherapy as well, every day for six weeks. We really hope that that is it blasted now. It's two years now since my last surgery, which is encouraging,” she reveals.
“I don't want to be thought of as some sort of a hero because I'm not. I've had tremendous support from family, friends and my employers.
“I'm a very positive person but there were some days when I thought I would never get back to where I was.
“My boys gave me a reason to get up in the morning. It took me a year to recover, it was long and very slow and there were a lot of dark days.
“But I would tell anyone to take small steps, day by day, not thinking too far ahead. You don't know the strength is there until you need it.”
David was always there to bolster her spirits. “He said we would get back to enjoying life again. He's been my rock. It has been very difficult for him.”
Nadine continues: “When I stopped hockey I started running to keep fit. The first run after being ill was like shedding shackles, there was such a build up of emotion in me. It might only have been a 10-minute run but psychologically it was like someone giving me my life back. It was a fantastic feeling,” she says.
Back at her job at Belfast Royal Academy since September, Nadine is now training for this year's Runher.
“It gives me something to work towards. I did the 5k Runher before with a friend. It was quite emotional to cross the finish line. And I did the 10k last October inside 50 minutes, so I'll have to beat that.
“It is a lovely event for women of all abilities. There's a nice family feel, great camaraderie and it's a good distance giving you a sense of achievement. David brings the boys to cheer me on and they have a ball. Maybe I'll even do a marathon some day!”
‘I may have seemed happy but yet inside I was in such turmoil’
Despite her bipolar condition, singer-songwriter Sarah Lynn (23) has her career up and running. She has already released a single along with DJ Mog and together they supported Fatboy Slim in Belfast recently.
Not only is she a budding singer-songwriter, but other careers as an artist or in the media world are strong possibilities for her too.
Unfortunately bipolar disorder forced Sarah to drop out of her degree course in textile art at the University of Ulster School of Art.
But since last September she has been working as a volunteer, raising funds and event managing for the Cool FM and Downtown charity, Cash For Kids.
That gave her the idea of taking part in the Belfast Telegraph Runher 10k run, which is supporting Cash For Kids this year.
“Exercise is an important part of managing my illness — and Runher is an excellent way to raise money for the charity,” she says. “I'm just so grateful that I'm well enough to do it.”
Sarah was diagnosed eight years ago when she was only 16, though her identical twin Hannah is not bipolar.
“My family noticed first of all. My mum saw that I was very detached and very hyper. When you go into a hypermanic episode it can lead to psychosis,” she explains.
“When I had my first episode I had been very ill with tonsillitis and glandular fever.
“It was also at the time of my GCSEs and my father was very ill as well. Stress can make the condition a lot worse. It has been a tough time.”
Sadly Sarah's father died of cancer three years later.
“Being bipolar can make me feel incredibly isolated. But in spite of it all, and thanks to the support I got from my family and friends, I did very well in my GCSEs and got As and Bs,” says Sarah, who is originally from Killinchy but is now living in Belfast.
“I did find friendships very difficult; girls especially didn't seem to understand. I might have seemed confident but it was really a mask.
“That artificial confidence was a coping mechanism. I came across as a person I really wasn't and probably others found it hard to get to know me. People said I seemed happy and to be coping well, but there was inner turmoil,” she reveals.
“Before I let the illness describe me, I thought it was a package you had to deal with. Now I don't feel it should stop me expressing my own personality. “
The main symptom Sarah suffers is depression, and her moods swing like a slow pendulum. In the last eight or nine years she has only had about two episodes and once had to receive treatment in a psychiatric ward.
“I take lithium which makes my mood more consistent. It does away with the peaks and troughs but it also leaves a bit of emotional numbness.
“Then again, I think I have coped with my illness quite well — it adds a depth to me as a person and I can empathise with others going through difficult situations,” she reflects.
“It's still not known exactly how to treat bipolar disorder but now, with the right guidance and support from family and friends, and through researching it myself, I have found alternative treatments.
“I find relaxing techniques are really important. I realise now when I'm taking too much out of myself.
“Exercise is very beneficial too. I don't have a strict fitness regime but I like trying various different fun sports like rock climbing or ice-skating.”
Sarah is going to the gym to build up her stamina for her 10k run and will soon pound the roads to the beat of Radiohead and Foo Fighters on her iPod.
“The future is pretty open, whether it's in media, music or art. Being a singer-songwriter is quite a recent thing. I play acoustic guitar and write my own songs, and performed at open mike nights at local pubs and clubs now and again for pleasure.”
Through her contacts at Downtown, she did a session on air. Next DJ Mog modified her song called Somewhere which they perform together and which was released as a single.
“It's still played on Cool FM and has even been on Radio 1. It's on iTunes as well. It has been really wonderful, a lovely surprise. An American label Nervous Records is going to re-release it and we'll see where that leads,” she says.
“It's also been suggested I could be a presenter or DJ. Or I'd love to take up some aspect of art again.
“Creativity is in my bones and I'm open to ideas.
“The last thing I want is for my condition to be a barrier that keeps me back.”
How to be a part of an unforgettable day out
Runher is held twice a year at the Stormont Estate in East Belfast.
The second race this year will take place in October.
The course length is either 5KM or 10KM and can be walked, jogged or run.
There is also a one-mile fun run for boys and girls before the main race
The race started with 220 women in 2007.
In 2010 upwards of 2,000 runners are expected.
Part of the entry fee will go the race's nominated charity — Cash For Kids
All runners will get a goody bag which includes a T-shirt and a Terry Bradley print.
Entry is still open at www.runher.co.uk and runners can even enter before 1pm on the day — just go along to the pavilion at Stormont. Runher starts 2pm