When a grape-size brain tumor threatened to derail their plans for a new life together, Nikki and Mark Hardy held fast to this thought: Love heals.
Their wedding date, Aug. 4, 1989, was just two weeks away when the tumor in Nikki's brain made its presence known: She had a grand mal seizure that left her unconscious for five minutes and erased her short-term memory.Nikki, who is now 28, was alarmed and confident at the same time; something was definitely wrong, but she'd always been healthy and had never had seizures before. Whatever itwas wouldn't be serious, she thought.
A brain scan taken a few days later revealed the hidden mass growing on the left frontal parietal lobe of Nikki's brain.
"It's really a shock to be healthy your whole life and have somebody tell you, `Oh, you have a brain tumor,' " Nikki said.
The first neurosurgeon Nikki visited was blunt. He told her she would probably die and strongly recommended she reconsider getting married. Nikki and Mark left his office in tears, their vision of a life together shattered.
With the help of her religious leader, Nikki was able to get an appointment with another neurosurgeon, Bruce Sorensen at LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City. Sorensen was much more encouraging. The tumor looked new and didn't appear to be malignant, he said.
"That statement - `It doesn't look malignant' - lifted a burden of grief," Nikki said.
On July 27, eight days before her scheduled wedding, Nikki underwent brain surgery. There was good news and bad news. Sorensen was able to disentangle most of the tumor from Nikki's brain without causing paralysis to her right side. The bad news: The tumor, an astrocytoma, was malignant.
Researchers aren't sure what causes brain cancer, which accounts for less than 1 percent of all cancers. Some have targeted exposure to certain chemicals, others blame exposure to passive cigarette smoke. Some researchers cite the fillings used to plug dental cavities, while others point to X-ray exposure. Some think it may be something as simple as a bump to the head in childhood, and others attribute the growing incidence worldwide to better diagnostic capabilities.
Astrocytoma is the most common brain cancer in adults and has varying survival rates. Fifty percent of those diagnosed with the benign form survive five years, while 3 percent diagnosed with the fast-growing form, glioblastoma multiforme, survive that long. Anaplastic astrocytoma, which is the form Nikki had, has a 20 percent survival rate after five years.
Despite innovations - laser surgery and use of implanted radioactive "sticks" - there hasn't been "a dramatic change in the outcome of brain malignancies over the past decade," said Richard Brown, director of the radiation center for central Utah at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center."
Which is not to say that people can't beat brain cancer.
Eight days after her brain surgery, Nikki married Mark Hardy.
"We decided we didn't want to live life like I was going to die," she said. "We had to carry on like I was going to live."
Nikki underwent eight weeks of radiation therapy and a year of chemotherapy and never missed a day of work during her treatment.
"Cancer can kill you if you let it," she said. "I believe if you want to live, you can live."