Nikki Gillette is especially thankful this holiday season for the boundless support she's received from friends and co-workers after a life-changing bout with breast cancer.
The Augustana College art education alum, who teaches at Blue Grass Elementary School, was diagnosed July 20, 2018, when she was 30 years old. There was a lot going on in her life at that time. Gillette had gotten divorced in April 2018, and the grandmother of her boyfriend, Bobby (now her fiance), died from spinal cancer the same week Nikki was diagnosed.
The Rock Islander, who's also a comedy and burlesque performer, got her biopsy results the day after they had planned Bobby's grandma's funeral. A lump had been discovered in her left breast during a regular gynecological appointment.
“I was so scared," she said recently. "The first thought I had was, 'This is it. This is how my story ends.' The second thought I had was, 'This is not going to be how I go because I still have a lot left to do. I'm going to fight this with every fiber of my being.'"
Gillette had surgery the next month. She served as the maid of honor at a friend's wedding four days later.
"I refused to let this slow my life down, and I still wanted to honor all my commitments," she said.
She's been a member of the comedy troupe Show Us Your Pokeballs for four years, and she joined the burlesque group Moonshine Misfits last year. She named her tumor Lenny "because I was like, 'What is an awful name to give this thing, and how can I put a comedic spin on this?'" Gillette said.
“I would say the comedy and burlesque really were my saving graces during all of this because the comedy with my improv troupe helped me express everything,” she said. “It was kind of cathartic to let emotions out and just laugh at things and turn this horrible situation into something that could have a humorous spin on it and inspire strength in others.”
Performing in burlesque “helped my body positivity in a lot of ways,” Gillette said. “I love that burlesque is about embracing who you are, not what you look like. Everybody is a burlesque body.
"I had a hard time feeling beautiful because I would look in the mirror and see this scar. While I know it could have been so much worse, it was still really hard emotionally. Coupling that with basically having to be infertile — it was hard to feel like a woman for a while.”
Burlesque “helped me feel feminine again, feel beautiful again, feel powerful,” Gillette said. “I had control over something again.”
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Her comedy career started with improv performances with The Blacklist six years ago at The Speakeasy in Rock Island. She did stand-up for about three years, but improv was her first love. “That working-as-a-team mentality — you succeed as a team; you fail as a team. ... You don't have that when you're by yourself.”
“It really taught me not to be afraid of pushing the boundaries,” she said of improv. Show Us Your Pokeballs is much more family-friendly, and Gillette said that's a good challenge. “You can't just go for the lowest-hanging fruit,” she said.
Gillette didn't have chemotherapy, but after seven weeks of radiation, she found out she was cancer-free the day after last Christmas.
“Honestly, that is the best Christmas present. Nothing's going to top that,” she said. “We made a celebratory afternoon out of it. We went and got lunch. We went shopping. We just had a whole day. I absolutely threw an 'I beat cancer' party. My parents came in; my brother and his girlfriend gathered a bunch of friends; and we all just went out and had a great night on the town."
She saw a therapist briefly, but “it was my projects and my creative endeavors that pulled everything through for me,” she said. Her fellow performers and teachers were strong sources of support, she added.
Her fiance also has been invaluable and stuck by her through everything.
“He supported me at home; he's been a huge emotional support,” Gillette said. They got engaged in July during a trip to New Orleans, and they'll get married next July in Las Vegas. “We want happy memories of July now,” she said.
Unfortunately, they had planned to have children right away, but because of her cancer treatment, Gillette will not be able to conceive for at least four and half years.
Still, she is taking her recovery in stride.
“Every single thing you feel is completely valid. There is going to be a day where you are absolutely exhausted, even after everything is said and done,” she said. “You're going to be super happy some days and grateful. Just raw anger is going to build up in you, but have to be able to let those out. You can't just bottle it all up for the sake of being strong and trying to be positive.”