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Nicholle Anderson: Hockey gave me hope during treatments

Wife of Senators goalie Craig Anderson, deemed cancer-free last week, said husband's play, Ottawa's playoff run helped her cope

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / Staff Writer

Somehow, this was exactly what Nicholle Anderson had thought would happen, back before. Before her cancer was diagnosed. Before her world changed. Before she knew that this season and this year would be unlike any other. In the before time she had told her husband, Ottawa Senators goaltender Craig Anderson, "This is the year that we're going to go far."

"You think so?" Craig said.

Yes, Nicholle said. She did.

And they did, making it all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, with Craig Anderson one of the key components in getting them that far, with a 2.34 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage in the playoffs, before the Senators lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

But by then there was something even bigger looming for the Andersons.

That Game 7, the most important game of Craig Anderson's NHL career, was played on Thursday. It came one day after Nicholle had a doctor's appointment in Florida that had to be on his mind during Game 6 on Tuesday, when he turned in a sparkling 45-save performance in a 2-1 win that saved the Senators from elimination.

It was the appointment that gave Nicholle and Craig the answer they had been waiting for nine months to hear: She was cancer-free.


It was last fall when everything changed, not long after Nicholle had her premonition about the Senators' season. In October she was diagnosed with cancer, nasopharyngeal carcinoma, which would require chemotherapy and radiation.

She went through a first round of treatment, which included 33 sessions of radiation and three of chemotherapy, and finished in early February. The second round was intended to be three more sessions of chemotherapy, performed near the Andersons' offseason home in Florida.

But Nicholle could get through only two, not uncommon given the brutal nature of the treatment, because her white blood cell counts were too low.


[RELATED: Craig Anderson of Senators says wife is cancer-free]


That left her with nothing to do but wait until Wednesday, for the Positron Emission Tomography scan that would bring her and her husband the best news of the season, something she shared with him on Thursday morning before Game 7, he said on Saturday.

"She did a PET scan and MRIs, and as of right now everything is clean and we'll just cross our fingers," Craig Anderson said. "We've got to do scans, I think, every three months. As of right now, things are positive, but you're not out of the woods yet until you get, I think, two years of cancer-free news."

But it was what they had been waiting and wishing and praying to hear, after a season that was like no other, both on the ice and off. It left her sick and tired and beaten down, at the same time that it caused her to push herself toward what she believed mattered, often losing herself in the joy of a truly unexpected performance by the Senators day after day after day.

"It doesn't feel real," Anderson said to before she got the news. "It feels like I did six months of chemo and radiation and as much as -- I'm going to say it straight out to you -- it sucked some days, I just can't believe I can be six months in.

"I'm glad that hockey's here because it gives me hope every day to watch the TV instead of just sitting here day by day waiting for a PET scan. It gives me something to look forward to every day, so it's good. It's positive."

FaceTime was a lifeline through the season and the Stanley Cup Playoffs, a way for Craig and Nicholle to communicate three, four times a day while Craig was away. During the regular season he took two leaves of absence in order to be with Nicholle, to support her and their two children while she went through treatment, first in New York and New Jersey and now in Florida. He continued to rush back whenever there was a break in the schedule.

"He's been there through the thick and thin of it, even between rounds and different things," Nicholle said. "He's flown in and saw me for a day or two, so he's trying his best and I'm trying my best to get to games and bring the kids."

She has watched him and cheered him and been amazed at his ability to compartmentalize, to be the player and teammate the Senators need, to be one of the main factors in getting them into a place that few thought they would go.

"He's, to me, amazing," she said. "I don't understand how he can do this, but I know what he's capable of, and I feel like I know my husband. He plays well under pressure. It amazes me that he can block it all out and do it, but he's doing it and I'm happy for him."

That was why she encouraged him to go back to the team, including at the end of October when backup goalie Andrew Hammond was injured and Craig was needed even more by the Senators, who, she said, have been "first class" throughout, including general manager Pierre Dorion, as has the Ottawa and hockey communities.

Her normal was to live life with him on the road and at games, so she didn't see why that should change, pushing him to return after his two-month leave of absence from December to February.

"When we were in New Jersey and I would sit there -- I was so sick from chemo -- I'd watch him and he'd watch the game and you'd see it in his eyes that this is his life," Nicholle said. "I think the whole perspective of him living this whole thing that I have cancer, he's playing lights-out because I just think he knows how valuable life is now.

"How do I say this? He's not really worried about the game. He's just so dialed in and focused now on what really matters in life. His whole mental game has changed. When we lived in Colorado [from 2009-11], if he let a goal in, you could tell he was upset, like he had something to prove. Now if he lets one in, he's chill and he's back at it again. I don't know. He's different, totally different."


Everything is different.

"I wake up and I'm like, did I really even go through this?" Nicholle said. "It's just crazy. It definitely doesn't discriminate against anybody. We're all in it together."

Anderson did make it to Game 6 at TD Garden in Boston in the first round, and to Pittsburgh for games over Mother's Day weekend, where she spent the day in bed in anticipation of making it to the arena for the 7 p.m. puck drop. It was easier for her to go to games in the United States, the travel days shorter, the connections fewer.

She conserves her energy where she can, like when she uses a wheelchair in the grocery store to be able to get around, which has been one of the more difficult parts of the treatment for someone so used to a go, go, go life.

From conversations she has had with others going through similar treatment, she believes she's doing well, that she is handling what she needs to handle.

"I keep telling myself every day, 'I'm good, I'm good, I'm good,' " said Anderson, who lost 35 pounds during the chemo and radiation. "So I try, mentally."

And now that has paid off.

The Andersons plan to start a foundation dedicated to the nasopharyngeal carcinoma that Nicholle has, and perhaps some other little-known cancers. She wants to raise money, to raise awareness, including the fact that her rare cancer was linked to the Epstein-Barr virus, a common virus better known for its relationship to mononucleosis, which she said she had never been diagnosed with.

It's something that doctors found when they initially biopsied the lymph node in her neck, which turned out to be malignant, along with the mass behind her nose.

She wants that fact to be known. She wants to educate. She feels like it's her duty, what she can do, the good she can take out of all that has happened.

She could lapse into doubts and recriminations and "Why me?" She could fall down a rabbit hole of depression. But that's what she's trying to avoid, trying to keep out of her mind and her life. She is focusing more on her sons, Jake, 5, and Levi, 3, on her relationships, on finding what is important to her, on making the best of every day that she's given.

She is not who she was nine months ago.

"If you look at it in the big picture, we all have different battles, whether I'm battling cancer, someone's battling alcoholism, someone's battling depression, we've all got to battle," Nicholle Anderson said. "We just have to come out on top, all of us. That's how we look at it.

"I feel like -- I don't know, I might get a little too spiritual for you -- but God picks certain people. And if it's me that has to educate and give back and do it, then I'm going to do it."

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