How would you describe your mother in just one word? If Mary Beth Nardoni had to be described in just one word, it would be kind. “She was a Special Ed teacher, and she had a heart of absolute gold. She started a Brownie troop for Special Ed students, because nobody else had the time to put it together. She got all of the uniforms donated, because most of the parents couldn’t afford them. At Christmas time, she made sure others had before we did. She would give you the shirt off her back,” said her daughter, Nicole.
It was 1998 when Mary Beth found a lump in her breast. “My mom said to me, ‘Cole, I feel something. And the crazy part is, I know it’s cancer.’” Because she didn’t have health insurance, Mary Beth couldn’t go to the doctor until several months later, where it was confirmed that her hunch was right: Mary Beth had breast cancer.
A deeply private person, Mary Beth didn’t want to concern herself with numbers, stages, or statistics. By the time she received treatment and had surgery to remove the tumor and her lymph nodes, the cancer had spread to a stage four. Yet Mary Beth refused to let her cancer get her down. “It’s just cancer, it doesn’t matter,” she would say, continually battling the disease with her head held high. Mary Beth battled for years, going in and out of remission.
Mary Beth, throughout the years. Photos courtesy of Nicole Hercules
When Nicole was getting ready to leave for a long awaited vacation in Cancun, she heard that her mother wasn’t doing well after a procedure and considered cancelling her trip. When Mary Beth got wind of this, she quickly checked herself out of the hospital, told Nicole she was fine, and sent Nicole on her trip. As soon as Nicole was out of the country, Mary Beth checked herself back in to the hospital. She refused to let her illness affect her daughter’s vacation, later saying, “Don’t worry about me. It’s just cancer, and I didn’t want you to miss your trip.”
In March of 2004, Mary Beth fell down in a parking lot and broke her arm. She had been told she was in remission, but didn’t continue receiving scans as she didn’t have health insurance. When she broke her arm, she had bone scans and it was discovered that the cancer was back. Nicole flew to Oklahoma on April 1, and that’s when she learned her mother was dying. “On April 19 at 7:30 pm, I told the doctors to administer the morphine. On April 20, she passed away and I was there to hold her hand. I told her that I loved her. She gave me the greatest gift that day – because she was there to see me take my first breath, and I was there to see her last.”
It took Nicole a few years to heal, and she participated in her first Komen event, the Chicago Race for the Cure, in 2009. In 2010, she did her first 3-Day walk in Chicago. In 2011, she walked the 3-Day in Chicago and Dallas/Fort Worth, and then in 2013, Nicole’s dad passed away of lung cancer. The tragic loss of both of her parents prompted Nicole to walk all seven 3-Day events in 2014, and she was invited to speak at the Opening Ceremony about how cancer has personally affected her family.
Nicole speaks at Opening Ceremony in a 2014 3-Day
Nicole’s sister was diagnosed with breast cancer in January, 2015. Her sister was HER2 positive, and is now in remission. Her sister will now be tested for the BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 gene, and then Nicole can be tested, as well. (Insurance stipulations sometimes require positive test results from an immediate family member before the expensive test is covered.) Despite still waiting for the BRCA gene test, Nicole took preventative measures. “I became a previvor with a prophylactic double mastectomy on June 1st 2015. We lost an aunt to Ovarian cancer, and with my family, it was just too much.”
“It hasn’t been easy, choosing to have them taken off. I’ve had four surgeries, and necrosis, and a bunch of other stuff, but you know what? I’d take this any day over cancer.”
When faced with unimaginable loss, Nicole chose to stay and fight. In the past eight years, she has raised over $41,000 through the 3-Day, funding dozens of life-saving treatments and ground-breaking research. “I don’t do this because I think it’s fun or cute. I don’t do this to wear a pink tutu around town. That’s not why I do what I do. I do what I do so that my children will never have to hear, ‘you have breast cancer.’”
And that’s exactly why we do what we do, Nicole; so that you, your children, our children, our aunts, our mothers, our fathers, our friends, our sisters, or our brothers never have to hear, “you have breast cancer.”
This Mother’s Day, make the commitment to helping us end breast cancer forever. If you’re a first-time walker, use the code BYB16 by May 9th to receive a free round trip plane ticket to the 3-Day. If you last walked between 2008 and 2014, you may also be eligible for free airfare by using code SPRING16. Check your 3-Day email for details. You can also change your profile picture on your social media accounts to support moms everywhere, via Susan G. Komen. Click here to try it now.