'I intend to climb four of Ireland's highest peaks on crutches ... and then surgeons are going to amputate my right leg'
As she prepares for her mountain challenge on Saturday, Nikki Bradley tells Laurence White that it is her way of coping with the news that one of her legs will have to be amputated because of damage caused to her hip by cancer treatment
The idea of climbing four of Ireland's highest mountains in 24 hours would be daunting in the extreme to most of us, but 32-year-old Nikki Bradley is planning to do it on crutches - a feat never achieved before.
For Nikki it is a way of raising funds for cancer charities, but it's also her last big challenge before she has her right leg amputated at the hip.
The Letterkenny woman, who is a motivational speaker and works for Triathlon Ireland, has been on crutches for several years after treatment for cancer caused severe damage to her hip.
She was 16 when she was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma and scans showed a tumour about the size of an orange in her pelvis.
"Doctors told me that I could have been born with the condition but that it lay dormant until I was a teenager," she says.
"Obviously the tumour had been growing without my knowledge and it was only when I found a lump that I thought anything was wrong."
She underwent chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment - the latter in 20-minute sessions each day for six weeks - to shrink the tumour before surgery. The cancer was treated successfully and Nikki has been cancer-free since 2004.
But it was damage caused by the treatment that left her with severe mobility problems.
In 2007 tests showed that the radiotherapy had caused deterioration of the bone in her hip and she had a hip replacement operation in Dublin.
"My right leg was slightly shorter than my left after the operation and I had a slight limp," she recalls. "Otherwise I was fine and able to get about and my quality of life was high enough."
But three years later, when in Australia, she began experiencing pain in the joint and realised something was wrong. She spent six weeks in hospital in Perth and it was discovered the replacement hip joint was infected and had to be removed. A temporary operation was carried out to allow her to return to Ireland for a second hip replacement.
That, however, was not the end of her troubles. In December 2011 while awaiting that operation she fell and broke the femur (thigh bone) in her right leg, which required an operation to fix a metal plate from her hip to her knee.
Nikki had a custom-built prosthesis made in England for the second hip replacement which was designed to fuse with her existing bone, but the 2012 operation was not a success. "I was left with a sort of loose hip, technically a dislocated hip," she says. "I do have control of the leg but it is not fully anchored to the hip and over time has continued to move upwards towards my spine.
"I now have to walk on tip-toe on that foot and am permanently on crutches."
She admits that in the early days of her treatment she underwent something of an emotional rollercoaster, but adds: "By the time I was in Australia I had kind of got used to all the operations and treatments and it was easier to just get on with it rather than mope about what happened. I saw the hospital visits and surgery as means towards an end."
It was in 2013 that she received the news that doctors could not do anything more for her hip. "Doctors in Ireland said that I might lose the leg in the future but the doctors in Birmingham said it was not a question of if but of when amputation would have to take place."
There was an outside chance of more surgery but she was told that the risk of infection could be as high as 50%. "To me that risk outweighed any benefit that I might get from the surgery so I decided not to go down that route," she says.
"Amputation is like a ticking time bomb. I know it will happen sometime but not when," she adds.
"There are no other cases just like mine which doctors can compare (to) and then draw up a timeline. It is basically a case of wait and see."
But Nikki has no intention of just sitting passively waiting on the inevitable.
"I was left feeling a bit scared but realised it was also my time to do things I might never be able to do after surgery. I just sat around earlier in life when I thought there was still a chance that I would get off the crutches but now I feel I am too young to just sit waiting. I spent quite a lot of time in my 20s in hospital and I grew tired of that so I began looking around at what I could do."
Along with partner Ian Parke (35), who is also a keen outdoors person, she has been spending a lot of time on the sea, kayaking, during the recent hot spell.
She has already undertaken a series of challenges which would tax an able-bodied person, and laughs when it is suggested that this is her bucket list for her leg. However, her list of achievements is staggering given the obstacles she faces.
She says: "I began doing the challenges in 2013, initially just rock climbing but then I climbed Muckish Mountain in Donegal in October that year. Then I began to rack up the difficulty."
In 2016 she attempted to break the Guinness world record for the fastest 5k on crutches, then scaled the Solheimajokull glacier in Iceland, abseiled into a 45-foot ice cave, and abseiled down Fanad lighthouse in Donegal.
One of her proudest achievements was taking part in a 24K trek in snowy conditions through the Brecon Beacons in Wales. "Most of the people there were ex-military personnel who had lost friends or limbs in conflict. It was nice to be in the company of people like that."
She trains regularly in her local gym and credits the exercise with helping to wean her off painkillers. "It has enabled me to become tolerant of much more pain and I now do not use any medication for that. Considering the damage to my hip I find that quite phenomenal."
So how does she feel about her upcoming challenge? She is due to climb the four peaks on Saturday.
She says: "I am more apprehensive about reaching my fundraising goal of €50,000 to be split equally between three charities: Action Cancer, the Irish Cancer Society and The Ross Nugent Foundation. All of them have been so supportive to me.
"Worrying about the fundraising has been a good distraction from the challenge. As regards climbing the mountains, I like to think of it as going for a very long, walk.
"I also concentrate on the number four. That is a small number and I can tick each one off as I go along. That's the psychology behind it. The reality may be different."
The four mountains are Slieve Donard in the Mournes, Croagh Patrick in Mayo, Mount Errigal in Donegal and Carrauntoohil in Co Kerry. Nikki has enlisted an experienced team to help her.
The team is led by her climbing mentor Iain Miller, who has 25 years' experience of mountaineering and 1,000 first ascents of sea stacks, sea cliffs and rock faces in Ireland and Scotland under his belt. The other members are photographer Joe Ladrigan, Irish Army sergeant Billy Fanneran and her partner Ian.
Adds Nikki: "I discovered a love for exercise and the outdoors. It was like a switch being turned on and it hasn't been turned off since."
Anyone wishing to donate to Nikki's four peak challenge fundraiser should go to https://www.gofundme.com/4peaks
The charities benefiting from Nikki's climb are:
The Belfast-headquartered charity provides a range of detection, prevention and support services which cost around £4m a year to run. Its breast screening service for women aged 40-49 and over 70 fills the gap in NHS provision which covers 50-70 age group.
For more information go to www.actioncancer.org
Irish Cancer Society
It was formed in 1963 following concern that 100 people a year in the Republic were dying from non-melanoma skin cancer. It was curable but lack of knowledge was leading to deaths. Now it provides detection, prevention, treatment and support services and is involved in funding research into cancer.
For more information go to www.cancer.ie
The Ross Nugent Foundation
Ross was a teenage boy from the Republic who was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma in 2009 and died the following year. The foundation was established by his family to fund equipment for the oncology wards in Beaumont Hospital in Dublin where he was treated, and in other hospitals.
For more information go to www.rossnugentfoundation.ie