We all have our stories, our “How did I end up here?” Mine began in June 2007 when I had an odd-looking mole surgically removed from my right shoulder. The pathology report came back citing stage IA melanoma with a recommendation for a wider margin excision. Before the original stitches had healed, I was under the knife again. Caught early. Whew! 97 percent cure rate. My cancer worries were relegated to the cobweb-laden corners of my mind. Sure, yes, I was diligent about seeing my doctor every six months for a skin and general wellness check. In the meantime, I continued working full time, training for a marathon, and riding my bicycle a couple hundred miles each week. I had life by the horns. I had a fabulous husband, a trouble-free teenage son, a job that I enjoyed, and the best fitness of my life! I had it ALL. Right? Yes, but I had no idea how truly unappreciative I was. It would be only five short years before my perspective would deeply change.

April 12, 2013. I awoke on the floor of the radio studio I work in. I was being strapped to a backboard. Confused and clueless, I asked the first responder in the ambulance to please have someone grab my bicycle. Oh, and if he would be so kind, to please call my buddies and let them know that I wouldn’t be able to make the lunch ride. “Sure. Okay. Yes ma’am. Are you feeling any pain anywhere? Do you have a headache or any visual disturbances? Are you on any medications?” Surely, I must’ve seemed high as a kite. Rambling on without taking so much as a breath, I flung out my response: “No pain. No headache. No meds. My name is Niki. I’m 44. So this is the inside of an ambulance. Huh. I’ve never been in one before. That’s not going to fall on me, is it? How many guys are with us? Are you going to be able to get me out of here without dropping me? I assume we’re on our way to Marian.” Happy as an otter with a belly full of oysters and without a concern in the world, I continued my one-sided dialogue with this young EMT until we arrived at the ER. I had no clue that my medical world had just made a hard left turn.

My first brain surgery followed a mere week-and-a-half later to remove a tumor of “unknown type” from my left frontal lobe. This tumor, one of three found in my brain, had caused enough edema to drop me to the floor in a full-on seizure. Stage IA had metastasized to my brain and lungs. That 97 percent cure?... Umm… no. I am what medical professionals refer to as a statistical deviant. The unfortunate 3 percent. Thus began the stage IV melanoma journey that I have been on for nearly three years.

I no longer look at statistics. They change at a rate faster than the Internet can keep up with, and I never follow the “good” pattern. My cancer highlights read like a horror story. I enjoy tossing them out in conversation as needed for comic relief or encouragement. I’ve had so much gamma radiation that my husband jokingly began referring to me as “brain-fried Betty” and would ask the team to target the less mouthy and more obedient centers. Ha! Yes, I am that annoying person who will find the speck of silver lining in any situation. Sometimes it isn’t until I’ve had a few hours for a good hearty meltdown or the chance to add some new scuff marks to my punching bag… but I eventually find the shine. People quite often ask me, "Do you ever feel like all of this is just not fair?" Not really. No. What I usually feel is lucky, that I now appreciate every little detail once overlooked in my busy day-to-day life. More importantly, I feel lucky that I have this opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives. I hope to show them how to fight, to teach them how important science and research are, and to let them know that good things can come from the bad. When you face a cancer diagnosis, it's important to laugh and to look for the positives. You will hear, read and see plenty of negatives. But if you learn to change your outlook...take one bite at a time, even if just to buy time for the next best option to come along, you just might find that you've got a lot of great little moments to enjoy.

Don't look back and wonder where your years have gone,

Niki Kozak