Date: August 1st, 2019
Author: Nicole Gibbs, as told to D’Arcy Maine
Nicole Gibbs is a 26-year-old professional tennis player, currently ranked No. 137 in the world and playing for the Orange County Breakers of World TeamTennis. The former NCAA singles and doubles champion was diagnosed with cancer in the spring after a routine dentist appointment. She shared her story with us amid her comeback to the court.
Shortly before Caroline Wozniacki’s bachelorette party festivities in April, I received a promotional email for a free teeth-whitening from my new dentist. “Oh, sweet!” I remember thinking. Naturally, I wanted to look good for the weekend (knowing how much of it was going to end up on Instagram and all), and for at least two years I was slacking on getting a regular cleaning.
So I went. And it changed everything.
It was my first time seeing this dentist, and he instantly noticed a small growth on the roof of my mouth. I mentioned this to my primary doctor at least five years ago; she told me it was nothing to worry about, a common bone growth that didn’t seem to be growing rapidly or doing anything of concern. My dentist at the time felt the same. It was about a centimeter in diameter and not causing me any pain or discomfort. However, my new dentist felt differently — the growth set off major alarm bells for him, and he encouraged me to get it biopsied. He felt certain it was not a bone growth.
I went to an oral surgeon the very next day. He thought it would be benign, based on its history, how long it had been in my mouth and how slowly it was growing. But the biopsied sample was sent to a pathology lab for an official diagnosis. I then, happy to at least not have that hanging over my head, went to the Bahamas to celebrate Wozniacki.
Shortly after getting back home, about a week after the initial dentist appointment, I got the call with the results.
It was cancer.
As soon as the doctor said the word, I glazed over. I didn’t hear much else, but I am pretty sure I cracked an awkward joke. It wasn’t until I called my fiancé, Jack Brody, that it really hit me. I started to fall apart and panic. It felt like my biggest fear come true. Since a very young age, I had been terrified about getting cancer. I almost started to question myself, like, had I manifested this with my anxiety about it? Did I bring this upon myself somehow by being so concerned about it?
Then my thoughts went to the tennis court. Would I ever be able to play again?
I made the mistake of going to WebMD and doing a Google search for oral cancer because I didn’t have any more specifics at that point, and the first thing that popped up was “17 percent five-year survival rate.” I thought, “Oh cool, I’m going to die.” It was terrifying, but I thankfully discovered soon after I had mucoepidermoid carcinoma, which is more of a subset and much less scary. I didn’t let myself play internet doctor after that and told Jack he was the only one allowed to Google anything from that point forward.
Everyone was hopeful we could treat the cancer with surgery alone, but radiation was also a possibility if the surgeons weren’t able to remove it all. While that is worrisome enough on its own, someone mentioned to me I could potentially lose all my teeth as a consequence of radiation. Leading up to the procedure, I kept thinking, “Please just be a surgery, please just be a surgery.” I didn’t want my teeth to fall out.
I had the surgery on May 17. The typical recovery period is four to six weeks, but my surgeon believed that, as a professional athlete, I could be on the low end of the timetable. My goal was to be back in time for Wimbledon qualifying, which started on June 24, and that felt possible.
However, there were a number of complications that made us throw that dream right out of the window, starting with the procedure being significantly more invasive than they initially planned. Too much of the tumor was taken out during the biopsy, and as a result, they didn’t have a clear idea of where it was. They needed to cut in further and wider to ensure they got it all out.
Not only that, but the prosthetic — really just a glorified retainer — I needed to wear on the roof of my mouth to protect it after the surgery didn’t fit properly. So they had to screw it in. Do you know what happens when you have a screwed-in retainer that doesn’t get to be taken out and cleaned? It causes an infection. So instead of the two days I had expected to stay in the hospital, I was there for seven long, agonizing days.
During my extended stay, I also got some unexpected news: Turns out I didn’t have mucoepidermoid carcinoma, but instead microcystic adnexal carcinoma. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of it. My doctors told me they had only ever seen 12 recorded cases of it.
That’s right — 12. I was lucky No. 13.
While that didn’t change the treatment much, it did mean the cancer had a greater risk of being elsewhere in the body. It has the potential to travel aggressively along nerve pathways. When I asked what exactly that meant, my doctor said, “In layman’s terms, that means it can jump tissue.” How frightening is that? Thankfully, I already had a full-body PET (positron emission tomography) scan, and there were no signs of cancer anywhere else. But still, it was alarming. (I still haven’t quite determined if the rarity and odds of this type of cancer mean I should now engage in every risk-taking activity or become a bubble kid and never go outside, but I’ll let you know when I figure that out.)
We thought I would be on a feeding tube for two days, as I couldn’t ingest food orally, and then I would graduate to soft foods once I got home. However, one of the stitches in my mouth blew open (another fun setback!), and every time I would try to eat or drink, it would come out of my nose. Sure, it’s sort of a great party trick, but not really what I was going for. In the end, I had to go home with the feeding tube — and use it for 3½ weeks in total.
It was tough. I definitely gained a new appreciation for how brutal medical trauma can be. I found it really dehumanizing. It’s so challenging to have a tube hanging out of you and looking visibly ill. You can’t hide from it. And then losing the ability to socialize around food, which is so much of our lives. I didn’t want to go out to dinner while I had a feeding tube and couldn’t eat anything.
I made sure to get out of the house, just to get some sunshine, at least once a day. I took long walks and tried to find small things to do, to give me a little purpose. But it brought me to my breaking point on several occasions. I remember looking at Jack and saying, “I really can’t do this anymore.” But I quickly realized that I didn’t have a choice. I knew I just had to tough it out.
The worst moments were when I was getting off the pain medication after 2½ weeks of strong dosages. I don’t know the mechanics of it, but I ended up feeling very depressed once I stopped taking it for about 48 hours. It was right around the time I started to go back to the gym to slowly train. On the first morning off the medication, I said to my trainer, Daniel Ciccolini, “I just can’t do this today.” I don’t think I had said a word other than that or smiled at all, and I was just in the worst mood. I was incapable physically of much of anything, but he was so patient. He took me through all of these easy core and mobility exercises. Whatever we could accomplish that day, we did, even though it was such a brutal day.
Because I was able to accomplish something that day, anything really, it gave me hope. If I hadn’t had that, it would have been devastating.
And every day after that, I felt a little bit better and made a little bit more progress. I did more with my trainer and my incredible support system. I could feel myself gaining in physical strength, and I was like, “OK, I’m getting somewhere!”
I returned to competitive tennis in early July at a tournament in Hawaii. I went in with no expectations whatsoever. I still can’t even drink too much water during changeovers without it going out my nose. (The doctors are hoping the hole in my mouth will fully close up on its own in the next few months, but otherwise, I will need another surgery.) I surfed every day in Hawaii and even had a glass of wine with dinner some nights — things I would have never done while competing. I shocked even myself and ended up making it to the final.
I ended up losing in the championship match to Usue Maitane Arconada, but when I thought about where I had been less than two months before, I certainly felt like a winner.
Before this experience, I was constantly wondering, “Is tennis something that I really love? Would I miss it in my life if it was gone?” And I’m blessed in so many ways to have been forced into that answer. I wasn’t ready for tennis to be taken away from me.
It may sound weird, but I’m thankful that this happened for a number of reasons, one of which is because it reconfirmed my love of sports and tennis. It reminded me that I’m not done. It’s given me such a fresh perspective, and I’m grateful for that.
I’ve been playing for the Orange County Breakers for the World TeamTennis season. It’s been a little bit of a whirlwind — I went from playing in the final in Honolulu on Sunday to playing in our opener the very next day in Orlando — but it’s been great, and I’m making up for lost time in terms of getting match experience this summer. My teammates have been so sweet. Every time I say, “Guys, I’m so sorry, I’ve been playing terribly,” they’re like, “Remember where you were five weeks ago?” The support has been so incredible.
I’m still finalizing my upcoming schedule, but I’ll be playing in several tournaments over the next few weeks before going to New York for US Open qualifying in the middle of August. My newfound semi-relaxed attitude worked in Hawaii, so I’m going to try and maintain that going forward. I was so disciplined before. I would never have surfed during a tournament; I would have been concerned about getting hurt or being too tired. But ultimately, that’s just no way to live. And I would never tell my best friend to live their life that way, in fear of bad things happening or being so worried about results. Ironically, I think it’s going to free me up to play much better tennis. And if it does, it does. If it doesn’t, then I’m at least having fun and enjoying my life.
At the end of the day, I feel so lucky. Yes, I’m lucky because the cancer could have been so much worse, but really, I’m lucky because I think I needed this experience in my life. I am genuinely thankful that it happened.
I know that sounds nuts, but early on when we were getting the diagnosis, Jack said, “I think if this isn’t the worst thing that ever happens to us, it’ll be the best thing that ever happens to us.” And so far, that’s been really, really true.
I want to hold on to all of these lessons and remember that tennis is not everything. It’s a lot of fun, and it should be. But it’s put my life into a new sense of balance I didn’t have, and I think I’m going to be a much happier person for the rest of my life as a result if I can keep this perspective. You have to enjoy the time you have because you’re not guaranteed to always be here. I knew that in theory, but to actually feel like my life might be taken away, it was such a powerful reminder to enjoy every day and every moment.
Cancer was initially my nightmare, but it weirdly turned into a dream-come-true diagnosis because it made me confront so many things in my life. It was debilitating and scary at times, but look at me — I’m back up on my feet so soon after and appreciating every second. It’s a win in my book.