Nicole Merhill considers herself “the queen of referrals to Mass General Hospital.” It’s a title most would never strive for, but Nicole laughs when she reflects on how many people she has connected with the incredible medical team there. She knows first hand how impactful an amazing team of doctors is because she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016, but not before an incredible few months of self advocacy.
Given that her mother was a breast cancer survivor and her aunt also had been diagnosed, Nicole began her mammograms at 30 years old. On her 41st birthday, she got a letter stating one of her mammograms had come back with an abnormality and that she should come back in six months. She consulted both her gynecologist and primary care doctor, both of whom stated further testing wouldn’t be covered by insurance. At the urging of her sister “(“this is your life we are talking about”), Nicole pushed for further testing and used friends to network her way into a doctor at Mass General Hospital and it was Dr. Michelle Specht who would go on to change Nicole’s life. Dr. Specht proceeded immediately with more testing to confirm that Nicole did indeed have breast cancer. A treatment plan was quickly put in place and Nicole received a bilateral mastectomy in 2016. She had such faith in her team of doctors that “surgery was the only option. I didn’t have any other decisions because they said that was the right treatment for me and I had immense confidence in them.”
Following surgery, Nicole had to take off six months of work in order to complete the chemotherapy to ensure the cancer was eliminated from her lymph nodes. At the time of diagnosis, Nicole had just started a new, dream job and she was cognizant that the timing could not have been worse. It’s why she was blown away when she got the call that she was being put up for a promotion. Unsure about how her body could hold up going back to work, her boss said something she will never forget which was that “often times the best opportunities come at the most challenging times. You’ll look back on this one day and won’t regret jumping in. Think about it and get back to me.” After discussing with her husband, Nicole went back to work two weeks after chemo ended. From that time on, she would hop on the red line, take off her wig, get radiation during her lunch hour, throw her wig back on and head back to work. The true embodiment of a “lady boss”, Nicole notes how incredible it was to have a supportive workplace: “it was the best thing to ever happen to me, to have a job that was so incredibly supportive while I was in treatment and offered me hope when I came back.”
In fact, Nicole’s greatest advice remains “find your tribe, find your support and don’t do it alone.” Diagnosis surfaces so may emotions and feelings, but connecting with others who have breast cancer, especially those also diagnosed young, made all the difference in Nicole’s outlook. When she was terrified about how she would look after surgery, her friend Sue snapped a photo of her chest and texted it without hesitation. It alleviated nearly all of Nicole’s fears on post surgical body image. That friendship only grew stronger and to date, the two have accomplished four Pan Mass Challenges together. Similarly, when she was looking to connect with other women in her area, she met Val. They bonded over human hair wigs and their friendship has grown ever since: “everyone views breast cancer as something your older grandmother gets. Getting diagnosed at young age means you have to find your tribe.”
Just as she was finishing her treatment, Nicole’s mother was re-diagnosed with breast cancer. Nicole leapt into action, providing her most important referral to date to Dr. Specht. Her mother is now doing great, once again a tribute to the incredible MGH team. Since her own treatment ended, Nicole notes that she chose to undergo genetic testing, which came back negative. It’s why she is so diligent about reminding people to self-check their breasts and self-advocate for the testing and treatment necessary to get concrete answers. She notes, ““its strange, looking back I knew something was off” and indeed, it was her self advocacy that saved her life.