I asked Leslie Laurie-Nicoll, a stage IV bladder cancer survivor and all-around heartwarming and inspiring woman, what is courage?
“What is courage?” she replied, “Courage is the ability to move forward even in the face of fear. How have I faced fear? Bravely—with loving friends and family holding my hand and walking by my side.”
This past May, Leslie, 56, canoed nearly 500 miles on the Missouri River with her son, Kris, who was completing a source-to-sea descent of the river system from Montana to the Gulf of Mexico. She took on this feat just months after finishing treatment, before even receiving an all-clear from her doctors regarding her prognosis. Her son planned the trip as a means to keep her active and engaged during her illness by meditating on a big goal.
I spoke with Leslie about her battle with cancer and how it fit into the context of this river trip. Through her words, she not only shared her story, but also built a case for the redemptive qualities of nature, brought light to the interplay of fear, courage, and healing, and showed how a misadventure in life can turn a woman into a Misadventurer.
“I am proud to say that I consider myself a fairly brave woman today—because it wasn’t always the case. Fear had been my companion most of my life,” Leslie explained, “I was painfully shy growing up, and struggled with feelings of inadequacy and low self-worth. I had convinced myself that I wasn’t smart and not very popular. Without problem-solving skills, I had no outlet for those thoughts, so they spun around in my head, but were not dealt with. Those beliefs and feelings of inadequacy followed me well into adulthood.”
Leslie became a mother just shy of her 19th birthday, and by the time she was 23, she had two more children. She reveled in the role of motherhood, while also wrestling with the worry that comes with wanting to be the best parent you can be, and the fear of what will happen to your children if something should happen to you. Once her youngest child was enrolled in kindergarten, she reentered the workforce as a teaching assistant. To do so, she had to take two classes to become licensed by New York State.
“I was scared to death and always sat in the back corner of the classroom where I could blend into the woodwork,” Leslie recalled, “I truly believed that I was not a smart person. I remember thinking that if only I could get a ‘B’ in each of the classes, I’d be happy. On rare occasions when I contributed anything to a discussion, my flushed face would give away my insecurity.”
Leslie earned the six credit hours she needed for her license, but then she continued on with her schooling, eventually earning her Master’s degree.
“Slowly, with each college class I took, my confidence grew, and began to replace those persistent fears and inadequacies,” Leslie shared, “I stopped hiding in the back corner of the classroom, and with each successful course under my belt, I inched forward toward the front of the room. Those fears and insecurities haunted me occasionally even after I earned my degree and started teaching, but eventually fizzled out. I had put myself out there—taken a risk and reaped a reward even more valuable than my teaching degree. I had finally learned that I am a competent woman who has a good deal of intelligence, and that with hard work, you can accomplish tremendous things. Most importantly, I learned to believe in myself.”
Reflecting on her life, Leslie continued, “When I heard the words, ‘You have cancer,’ I realized that it was time to deal with that old fear I’d been carrying around most of my life. Only now, I had strategies to help me cope. I was bombarded with a mess of decisions that had to be made, learning that needed to be done, and plans that needed to be put into place and executed. I bought a journal in which I wrote down everything—notes from appointments, questions I had, feelings I was enduring. Over the years, I’d learned that if I can get worries out of my head and written down on paper, they are less daunting. It gave me a sense of control. Tearfully, I moved forward only because there was no other choice. I couldn’t procrastinate on this one. No more letting irrational fears spin out of control in my head, leaving me paralyzed.”
I found Leslie’s story of grappling with insecurity as a young adult relatable, and the process she’d gone through to finally look fear in the face inspired me. Anticipating my next questions, Leslie continued with her story.
“What does all this fear talk have to do with my Missouri River paddle trip? I don’t swim very well. I am not an expert canoeist. I am fearful of wild animals when camping. I was recovering from major surgery, numerous complications, and chemotherapy. I had medical needs that would require some extra thought and planning for a trip of this magnitude. I had been off from work for a little more than a year total, and I wasn’t in the best of shape. Medical problems would pop up when I was least expecting them. Because of all these things, I was fearful of attempting this trip with Kristopher.”
On April 10, 2015, Dr. Bernard Bochner at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center removed Leslie’s bladder and several other organs. He then created a new “bladder” for her out of some of the parts he removed, placed it inside her abdomen, hooked it up to the ureters from her kidneys, and created a tube that now allows her urine to exit from a small hole, or stoma, in her belly button when accessed with a catheter.
“It’s actually pretty cool,” Leslie shared, “My second grandson calls it my superpower, and I like to think of it that way.”
However, this wasn’t the end of treatment for Leslie. After surgery, she had many complications, one being a possible pulmonary embolism, and she ended up needing to give herself injections twice daily for six months. Her pathology report also showed that the cancer had invaded some of her lymph nodes.
“Once the cancer cells escape the primary location, it is not good,” she reflected, “It automatically puts you at a stage that brings imminent death into focus. How long would I have? I thought about the love I have for my family, and my heart was breaking with the knowledge that I’d be leaving them sooner rather than later.”
Leslie faced six rounds of chemotherapy.
“A three drug cocktail that would knock my socks off, and hopefully wipe out any remaining microscopic cancer cells in my body,” she said, “Again, I picked myself up and moved forward, facing my fears of the unknown as bravely as I could.”
So, what did all of this surgery, chemotherapy, and complications mean for Leslie on her 500-mile paddle trip? It meant that in addition to some dry bags and a sleeping pad, she also had to bring along two bottles of saline solution to rinse out her bladder pouch each day, 175 catheters, and a bottle of antibiotics just in case an infection set in.
Yet, even with these additional challenges, Leslie responded with positive energy, “The best thing of all,” she stated, “is that I didn’t have to crawl out of my tent to squat in the wet grass where bears or mountain lions might be lurking when I had to pee. Pretty darn cool!”
As she told me about her experience with cancer and the methods she found to deal with the fear that accompanied it, Leslie returned again and again to share stories of the love and support she’d found from friends, family, and medical staff. One nurse, Charles, gently held and comforted her as she received an epidural. Another nurse, Bill, gave her the tough love she needed to learn how to give herself her own injections. Aunt Linda and Uncle Vinny had her stay with them and cared for her during her recovery, with Uncle Vinny even ceding over his recliner to her for the duration of her stay.
“To deal with the fear, I surrounded myself with family and friends. I tried my hardest to remain optimistic and made sure the people I spent the most time with did the same,” she recalled.
Still reflecting on fear and how she’d made it through such a trying time, Leslie continued, “My love for the outdoors, my sense of adventure, the ability to see parts of the world that many haven’t witnessed, and the opportunity to spend time with my children have pushed me to do things that I would never have considered doing twenty years ago.
“I keep a card that my daughter sent to me at the beginning of my cancer journey to remind me in case I forget. It reads,
Remember the time you paddled 90 miles in Alaska? Or when your first international trip was to Ghana? Or how about the time you decided to go back to school after having three kids? Oh yeah, and delivered three kids with no drugs? You really are a badass.
On May 17, 2016, Leslie joined her son in Helena, Montana to paddle nearly 500 miles on the Missouri River to Fort Peck, Montana. This stretch contained some of the most beautiful scenery Kris would pass through on his source-to-sea, including the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness and the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.
“I loved hearing the night sounds, such as the frogs croaking and the owls hooting,” Leslie reminisced, “When I close my eyes, I can recall the sound of the paddle as it gracefully sliced its way through the water over and over and over. I loved the sound of the water moving downriver, and the lullaby that the gentle winds sang to me as I fell asleep each night. I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to witness firsthand some of the most beautiful wilderness areas in our nation.
“I get great clarity from my time out in the wilderness. Even at home, if I’ve had a rough day, I head outside to clear my head. Walking through the woods is therapy for me. I love the excitement of never knowing what you will stumble upon, whether it’s an animal, a new plant or tree, or the beauty that each season ushers in. Some of my favorite memories as a mom involve traipsing through our little patch of family woods with the kids, exploring.”
However, despite the tranquility, the trip was not without its challenges. During their first week out, Leslie and Kris faced a relentless, cold rain.
“It rained for days. I think the rain made us both a bit grumpy,” Leslie remarked when I asked her if she’d had a low point on the trip, “There were plants with prickers at every site we camped on. It was cold. Everything was wet. We slept on an island one night that must have had over 100 spiders for every square foot. Rightfully, I named the island after them. One night got down into the high 30s. The days of rain and cold wore on us both. It was one of these days that I wondered if I’d made a mistake joining Kris. We’d had some words regarding different expectations of our duties on the river, and my feelings were hurt. I admit to having some tearful moments sitting in the bow of the boat that day, but we talked things through, and settled into a routine that worked for each of us.”
Leslie and Kris also had to cross Fort Peck Lake, a large, deep body of water that, given the strength and suddenness of the winds that run between the Rocky Mountains and the Northern Plains, has a bad reputation. One day during their crossing, Leslie and Kris sat on the shore for nine straight hours watching 45mph winds create rolling 4-foot waves. To ensure they paddled safely across the lake, they had to put in long days to take advantage of good weather when they had it. This sometimes meant 50-mile paddle days that continued well past sunset.
Yet, it was in these challenges that Leslie seemed to find the most healing.
“There were days on the river that Kris pushed the limits of my ability,” she shared, “I hadn’t done the degree of physical training I should have done to get in shape for the trip, and by nightfall, my shoulders were killing me. Instead of focusing on the pain, I tried to think about my stroke and execution of each paddle. I joked and would profess that I was a paddling machine—and it really is kind of true. I would get into a zone in which I would try to isolate and focus on other muscles I was using—my abdomen, for instance—and it would take my mind off the pain. We had some incredible mileage days on the water. With each passing day, I became stronger. I’d been going to physical therapy for weeks for pain in my right shoulder. This trip was my medicine. By the time I’d paddled 481 miles, my shoulder pain was gone.”
My face and heart smiled together as Leslie continued to share her stories from the river. It was clear that both this time in nature, and this time with her son, had softened pieces deep within her that maybe she hadn’t even fully processed yet. The stories she told were ones that could be passed down as medicine for generations to come.
“There are so many memories that I carry in my heart from my time on the river with Kristopher. I treasure the times we’d time ourselves and see how fast we could get the canoe going—and then try to beat our record. I treasure the joking we’d do about going to the bathroom ‘camping style.’ It seemed like Kris wanted me to hike a mile to find a suitable site, far enough away from our camp. There are rattlesnakes out there, you know. I wasn’t a big fan of hiking through tall grass and snake territory, so I wouldn’t travel nearly as far as the mile Kris wanted me to, and he would scold me,” Leslie laughed.
“I remember hiking through the amazing coulee in the Missouri Breaks, and wondering at its beauty. I smile when I think about how fast Kris guzzled his cup of morning coffee while I tried to explain that it’s an ‘experience’ that should be savored. I think about the gross Italian couscous I had dehydrated before the trip, and how the tomato paste didn’t rehydrate—it was like eating tomato paste fruit rollups. I can picture the two elk standing just inside the tall grass on the bank of the river in the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Preserve as our canoe drifted past. I remember the hot days on Fort Peck Lake where the water was still. We’d dip bandanas and our hats into the water in attempt to cool off. I remember the carp that almost tipped our canoe over. I remember the beautiful sunsets we watched, and how I’d write in my tent until I got tired. I read about Lewis and Clark throughout the paddle and reflected on their journey up the river and what that must have been like.”
After she’d finished sharing her story, I asked Leslie, “Do we need struggle in our lives to bring out our best selves?”
“Absolutely!” she replied, “It has been the difficult times in my life in which I’ve grown and learned the most. Clarity comes in hindsight, and with clarity comes a greater awareness of oneself.”
A week after she returned home from her 19-day paddling trip, and on the one-year anniversary of the start of her chemotherapy, Leslie’s doctor informed her that all of her scans looked good—she was clear of the cancer.
“For now, I celebrate,” Leslie beamed to the followers of the trip, “There is no evidence of disease growing inside me. Thank God! I have many more miles to paddle!”
“So, what adventures are next for Leslie Laurie-Nicoll?” I asked.
“I just bought my very own canoe,” she shared, “and I’ve taken it out a few times to get the feel for it. My plan is to organize a canoe trip for next summer with a few of my friends. I’d love to be brave enough to go out on my own for a night or two, as well. That would really push me outside my comfort zone. I also would like to visit the National Parks that I haven’t seen, so maybe next summer I will get to a couple more. In the meantime, I recently returned to work after my cancer ordeal. I’ve moved from teaching fourth grade to sixth grade, and now to pre-kindergarten. Four-year-olds are proving to be quite an adventure of their own!”
Leslie offers her story to fellow cancer patients as one of hope when the prognosis is grim, “Inspiration,” she said, “to keep living life, to get out there and stay active doing things that bring you happiness. Perseverance—to keep fighting when you feel like giving up.”
If you’re moved by Leslie’s story, please consider donating to her fundraiser to support bladder cancer research efforts at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.