Niko Harriton is 40 years old and just completed treatment for breast cancer on May 27th, 2015. Because of family history, Niko had been getting yearly mammograms since 35 years of age. On Thanksgiving 2013, Niko felt a small bump under her armpit while shaving. Both her OB/GYN and internist told her it was nothing to worry about and advised her not to take the BRCA test because the breast cancer had been on her paternal, not maternal, side of her family. Over the next several months she still felt the bump but didn't pay it much heed.
In April of 2014, Niko decided to seek final resolution on the bump. "Previous experience taught me that mammograms do not show everything in women with dense breast tissue so you should also get a sonogram. I made an appointment myself and demanded my OB/GYN prescribe a mammogram and bilateral sonogram," says Niko.
On April 19th, 2014 she underwent these tests and the radiologist came in and told her she had cancer without saying the words. Niko says, "I sat there in shock listening but not hearing anything. The next thing I knew I was walking out of the office, saw my husband in the waiting area and I burst into tears. My life had just changed and I was petrified."
The biopsy was done on April 21st, and according to Niko, "The next part was in some ways the most stressful. I had no idea what stage I was, what to do next, or where to go after diagnosis. I went on the internet -- huge mistake! I thought I was doomed. My mind went into overdrive and all of a sudden I was reaching out to breast surgeons and oncologists.
In May, Niko underwent a lumpectomy followed in June by a regimen of six cycles of chemotherapy. She finished her last chemotherapy on September 15th, finished radiation in November, and completed a one-year course of Herceptin. Since then she was also hospitalized with pneumonia and broke three ribs from coughing. "Some may say this was the worst year ever, but in reality it was the best. It was the year of saving my life and now there will be many more years I will get to share with family and friends, "says Niko.
When asked what one thing was instrumental in keeping her sane throughout that year Niko says, without hesitation: “fitness”. In her own words:
I was working out regularly before I was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2014. I trained twice a week with my trainer and took Soul Cycle classes on the alternating days during the week. I love to dance and Soul Cycle was an extension of that, except for the addition of the obvious bicycle. Weight had never really been that much of an issue for me until I gained 45 pounds with my second pregnancy. After giving birth to my daughter, Daisy, in 2010 I found myself looking and feeling terrible. I started a regimen of eating healthy and working out. I lost all the weight and then some. I was in great shape and proud of my hard work. Then the diagnosis came and with it came a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, pneumonia and steroids. I call these the “four evils” for me. I was able to do a few soul cycle classes after my first and second cycle of chemotherapy but after that I found my strength and stamina compromised. My diet also changed for the worse. I had perpetual morning sickness from the chemotherapy and the only food that got me through were plain bagels and plain pasta (carbs and more carbs). I could not seem to even drink water. I had to go in two days after each infusion to get fluids intravenously. When all was said and done I had packed on twenty pounds. I was larger than I had ever been when not pregnant.
When I finally finished all my treatments in May of 2015, I found myself heading into summer with nothing that fit, but I was so happy to be feeling better that I wanted to celebrate. I let loose! I was living in Wainscott for the summer and decided this was going to be the summer where I would live life to the fullest, which meant both good and bad for me. Exercise wise I was great, my routine started each morning with some sort of workout. I tried many different exercise classes. I religiously did Barry’s Bootcamp, Soul Cycle and started to dabble with yoga and AKT in motion. I was challenging myself physically. I enjoyed the social aspect of the class environment as well. I had a group of friendly faces that became workout buddies and they helped to cheer me along. However, from a dietary perspective, I was not in sync with my exercise program. I felt I had just been through hell and I deserved to live. I was always of the mindset that I should eat each meal as if it were my last. Not a great attitude towards food.
When I got back to the city in September, I continued with Soul Cycle and AKT as well as I brought back my personal trainer, Melissa. Most recently I completed a breast and ovarian gene test and it was discovered that I have tested positive for one of the newer hereditary mutations in a gene that increases my risk for secondary breast cancer and colon cancer. At first I took this news with defeat. I felt like I was diagnosed all over again. I was scared for my well-being. I had been having too much fun at the expense of my health. What if I had caused more detriment? After being able to work through this small set back,I decided that diet and exercise will be my biggest supporters. Melissa and I made an 8 week pact. In eight weeks, I will be back in great shape. I drastically changed my diet to a healthier diet, limited my alcohol to the suggested amount by my oncologist, and increased my exercise routine. Melissa has not let me pity myself when it comes to my weight gain. She inspires me and tells me how great I am doing. She has been my trainer for the last 9 years, since she got my body back in order after my first pregnancy, and has helped me with my comebacks a few times. We are now in the midst of working on my third comeback. This one is the most significant as this is my comeback to life and ensuring a long and healthy one. Exercise has not only proved to be medically and physically helpful for me, but it also has been emotionally helpful. I find it therapeutic during my down times. I have started to see the results of my hard work, which makes me feel amazing. I would have thought that having had cancer would have made me change my ways, but to be honest it really took this second scare of being faced with the possibility of being predisposed to a secondary cancer to make me realize how precious my body is and how I need to treat it with the utmost respect.
Niko strongly believes that every person should be their own advocate, they should never hesitate to get checked. These days, Niko is enjoying celebrating life with her husband, 8 year old son, 5 year old daughter and her family. She does motivational speaking on the subjects of early detection, being diagnosed with breast cancer under the age of 40 as well as how to tell your children about your diagnosis. She helps to advise women on chemotherapy side effects and is in the process of creating a support system for young women within schools and religious communities.