Every couple faces challenges in life. For Nicole and Ryan Thompson, it might be easier to name the challenges they haven’t faced together than the ones they have.
Nicole, 40, a math teacher at Hoover High School, and Ryan, 39, a history teacher and the head wrestling coach at Spain Park High School, started dating each other as teenagers. They both attended Robert E. Lee High School in Montgomery.
When Nicole was 17 and a senior, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph system that starts in white blood cells called lymphocytes. “It took a while to get that diagnosis for me,” she says.
Prior to her diagnosis, she had been sick with flu-like symptoms and couldn’t seem to get better. “It was like I had a virus I couldn’t get rid of. There was no explanation of why I was sick, other than it was God trying to get them to find this cancer.”
Nicole’s dad took her to the emergency room, where an X-ray of her chest revealed a tumor about the size of a softball wrapped around her heart.
“It was a surreal moment for my parents,” she says. “I remember the doctor coming in and telling my mom if it was his daughter, he would send her to Birmingham. So, we came to Kirklin Clinic. They did a biopsy of my tumor.”
The biopsy indicated Nicole’s thymus gland – which is supposed to shrink as a person reaches puberty – had only grown larger and was filled with cysts. The lining of it was where the Hodgkin lymphoma was found.
To make sure the cancer hadn’t spread, Nicole says doctors performed an exploratory laparotomy, a surgical procedure in which they made an incision into her abdomen to biopsy surrounding tissues and organs. They also performed a bone marrow extraction.
Nicole remembers Ryan coming to visit her in Birmingham after one of her surgeries. He brought her a Christmas bear, which she still displays at home.
Then, Nicole underwent radiation treatments in Montgomery – 36 treatments in a six-week period. “I’d leave school every day and go to the cancer center and do that,” she says. “Certain smells make me sick to this day from smelling it every day.”
Three to six months after her treatments, Nicole entered remission, just in time to graduate high school. Except for regular checkups and scans, Nicole carried on with her life for the next 20 years. She and Ryan went on to college and got married after they graduated. They welcomed three daughters, Kate (15), Macie (13) and Klara (10).
Their education careers brought them to the Birmingham area from Opelika about five years ago. Several years ago, Nicole and Ryan were watching a football game at home when she started experiencing weird sensations with her heart.
“It was really scary,” she says. She called her brother, who had suffered a heart attack when he was 26 years old, and compared symptoms. “It didn’t sound the same as my brother’s. It kind of went away.” But after Nicole described the incident to one of her school’s nurses, she decided to go to the doctor.
At first, Nicole was diagnosed with mitral valve prolapse and prescribed medication. She also was sent to a heart specialist and underwent a stress test. At 37 years old, she failed the test.
“They were confused,” she says of the medical staff. She underwent more tests, which revealed she had a 70-80 percent blockage in her heart, and that her right coronary artery was 100-percent blocked.
“Ryan says his knees about buckled,” she says of when he heard the news. Doctors put two stints in her heart.
“That was a bigger shock to me than the cancer because we didn’t know what was going on at the time,” Ryan says. “By then, we had three kids and all kinds of responsibilities and obligations.”
Nearly a year later, Nicole realized a pea-sized knot that had surfaced on one side of her face after she had cancer – a knot that started out as small and innocent – had gotten larger and was extremely sore. It was so prominent that one of her coworkers noticed it. After assessing the knot, one of Nicole’s doctors sent her straight to a surgeon, who removed it.
“It was a tumor in my parotid gland,” she says. “They said it’s probably from the radiation.”
Nicole says being hit with her heart issues and the parotid tumor almost back-to-back was hard. She gets emotional when she thinks about it.
“There’s times I think, ‘Am I going to make it?’ I have an 86-year-old grandmother,” she says. “I want to make it. I feel like I keep getting saved for a reason. I’m here because God wants me to be here.”
Nicole’s new version of normalcy includes taking five pills every day and having various doctor’s visits frequently. Ryan describes the couple’s journey with Nicole’s health as an “ongoing affair.”
“It was so long ago when it first started. I think it brought us a little closer early on,” he says. “Normally, you’re not faced with severe health issues at that young of an age. I think it brought us closer together relationship-wise.”
Nicole agrees, noting the challenges they have faced have not left their marriage or family “broken.” If anything, the Thompsons are closer because of the experiences.
“I think that if you already have a strong relationship, any kind of trials and tribulations you go through only make you stronger,” Nicole says. “Our marriage is based on a relationship with Jesus Christ, and then we go from there. I couldn’t imagine doing life with anybody else but him (Ryan). He’s all I know.”
Nicole and Ryan will celebrate their 18th wedding anniversary in August.
“When you go through something like that, it helps you more easily prioritize what’s important,” Ryan says. “Sometimes, we can take for granted health, financial security or whatever it is. It’s brought our family closer.”