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Nicholle Anderson: It can happen to anyone

After a public battle with the disease last season, Nicholle Anderson is looking to be the "voice for the cancer patients" in her role as Hockey Fights Cancer ambassador with the NHL.

by Craig Medaglia @craigmedaglia / Ottawa Senators

Out of the blue.

That's how it all started last fall for the Andersons.

A very public battle with cancer ensued over the next few months for Nicholle but its origins trace back to a few stormy weeks in September 2016.

"We were planning on having a third child but that's when we had the miscarriage and then I was diagnosed two weeks later. It was a rough, emotional time for us and things weren't going our way," recounted Nicholle. "To go from thinking you have a sinus infection to being diagnosed with cancer two days later; you look at it now and it's almost like it was a blessing in disguise."

The circumstances surrounding her eventual diagnosis were kept private by the team during training camp. It was always 'family first' for both the Andersons and the Ottawa Senators but behind the scenes there was a lot of uncertainty.

"Craig was missing for parts of the pre-season and people didn't know what was going on but that was because of the baby issue," Nicholle recalled. "Then when the situation evolved to the cancer diagnosis, we didn't even know if he was going to play last season."

Nicholle's exact diagnosis was nasopharyngeal carcinoma, a rare type of head and neck cancer that starts in the upper part of the throat behind the nose. The treatment is a combination of radiation therapy and chemotherapy. As the team embarked on its regular season, the Andersons were living a much more real and important battle at home.

"I think I was scared at first because when I walked into my treatment, I hadn't really researched what I was going to go through and it was brutal," Nicholle described of the start of her recovery.

She spoke at length about being both physically and mentally exhausted during the entire process. She lacked energy and did not have an appetite. Her only focus was on getting a little better each day. On leave from the team, her husband was there to help share some of the burden.

"During the treatment, Craig wore so many different hats. Between taking me to all my chemo and radiation sessions, he was always by my side," Nicholle said of her husband. "He was the Dad cooking dinners, he took care of all the Christmas shopping and he drove two hours to take my little Yorkie Bella to the vet in Philadelphia when she broke her jaw. He did all the things that I would normally do so I think he got to see what the daily life of a hockey wife entails."

The roles had seemingly reversed from the traditional hockey family relationship.

As Nicholle fought through her treatment, Craig picked up the slack at home and the sense of appreciation for what a hockey wife does wasn't lost on him.

"Our window to play this game is so short and you have to be a little selfish because your career may only be five to 10 years, if you're lucky, so you have to make the most of it," Craig said about his time at home during Nicholle's treatment. "It just put everything in perspective last season in so far as how easy the players have it to just go to work and focus on hockey."

Beyond the daily tasks, Craig found other ways in which he could support his wife. During the warm-up for last season's Hockey Fights Cancer game, Anderson put aside his familiar #41 for a more sentimental #23.

The story at the time was that it was Nicholle's favourite number but its deeper meaning goes beyond that.

"That's the day that we got married. We got married on July 23rd and he just knew that #23 has always been my favourite number," said Nicholle. "I always joked with him when we got married that he'd have to change his number to #23 and have Anderson-Nolasco hyphenated on the back of his jersey. That's something we've always laughed about so to see him change his number for the warm-up was pretty amazing."

Over the course of the season, Nicholle wasn't able to attend many of Craig's games. Her plans to see her husband hit a significant career milestone also fell through but ultimately spurred one of the more iconic memories from the Sens' playoff run to the Eastern Conference Final.

"I was going to go to the game in Montreal when he played his 500th NHL game but in the middle of the night I got really sick which caused me to miss myflight. I told him that I'd really try to make a playoff game instead," Nicholle recounted about rescheduling to eventually see the Sens close out their series against the Bruins. "I got to Boston and I wasn't 100%. I remember staying in the hotel until the last minute before I had to leave for the game and I wore my Anderson jersey but I didn't think I was going to stick it out to the end (of the game) to be completely honest with you. I went to the game like any other fan so I wasn't thinking about stuff like that. People started to text me that they were showing me on television dancing with pizza in my hand and I was like 'oh that's just wonderful'."

After the game, Nicholle waited in the stands near the Sens' locker room to congratulate her husband on the team's first round series victory. 

Video: Craig Anderson greets wife Nicholle after Game 6 win

"When they caught the glimpse of us hugging at the end, I didn't even expect anyone in the arena. It was cool, though, because I didn't get to see him a lot," Nicholle shared. "The team was awesome though, they let him come home for two days at a time during the regular season. He would fly down (to Florida) to be with me but at that point in the playoffs, I wasn't able to see him much."

Nicholle's increased visibility as a result of her public battle with cancer sparked an off-season meeting with the National Hockey League at which a small seed was planted that has grown exponentially over the last few months. Anderson's hopes of putting together a small, league-wide initiative became an offer to do much, much more.

"In July, I went to an appointment in New York at the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and while I was there I contacted the NHL head office," Nicholle said. "We sat down together because I was just looking at doing something little and fun for a fundraiser across the league. We started talking about so many different things about cancer and it just evolved into my becoming the Hockey Fights Cancer ambassador."

In her role with the NHL, Anderson hopes to be a "voice for the cancer patients" and is looking to help raise money to fund facilities across North America, like the Hope Lodge in New York, to relieve some of the monetary stress that cancer patients endure during their recovery.

"The American Cancer Society and the Canadian Cancer Society put money into lodges at which patients can stay for free and so they don't have to worry about the financial burden. They can focus on their treatment and they can stay there with a caregiver as long as they need to."

This entire process has provided the Andersons with much perspective. In fact, Nicholle's first of five blog entries for NHL.com this month is all about not taking life for granted -- something that her husband has echoed many times over the past year.

"It's like what Craig always says: live for the now. Appreciate every minute you have," said Nicholle earlier this week. "There are days where as a parent we get wrapped up in so many things and we just have to step back and ask 'is this important?'. When I look at my kids after having faced cancer, I know that I want to spend as many minutes with them and create as many memories as I can."

Nicholle will be in attendance for the Sens' Hockey Fights Cancer game this Saturday at Canadian Tire Centre where the team will look to generate awareness and funds to help impact the lives of cancer patients and their families in the Ottawa area.

For more details on how you can support this great cause, visit the Sens Foundation website here.

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