Thrive, Don't Just Survive: a Conversation with Niki Hardy

Six weeks after losing her sister to cancer and already having lost her mum to cancer, Niki Hardy was diagnosed with rectal cancer. Yep, rectal cancer. 

Niki began asking questions like: 

  • Had I done something to deserve this? 

  • Was God off answering the prayers of women who didn’t scream at their kids or tell rude jokes at Bible study?

Then she met some folks who called themselves cancer thrivers, not cancer survivors.  Thriving sounded so much more alive, hopeful and dusted with colorful sprinkles, than the life she was merely surviving.

The message of her book, Breathe Again, is this: 

Friend, it really is possible to thrive, not just survive, when life beats you up, steals your joy and poops on you from a great height.

I wanted to know more, don’t you?  Recently, I had the opportunity to get to know Niki better thanks to technology and to Niki’s hubby who drove whilst we chatted.  Here are excerpts from our recent conversation.

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Niki, how did you walk through the initial days of your diagnosis?

A mix of faith and denial.  That was really hard.  But once I was put on a conveyer belt of appointments and treatments there was not a huge amount of time to figure things out.  I think I always had a sense of, “Whatever happens, God’s with us and it’s gonna be ok.”  At the same, that didn’t mean I didn’t have a ton of fear and anger at God.  I never lost my faith, but I definitely had questions and got angry and all those kinds of things.

That’s healthy.  

My view is that these emotions aren’t really a choice.  We have them, and we can then choose to do whatever we want with them.  Some may not want to dwell on fear.  But we can either take the fear to Jesus or not do anything about it or deny it’s there.  But maybe then it will have more control over us.

It helped me to take my fear to a few trusted friends.  I didn’t really know how to walk through it.  I just asked them to be with me in my mess.  I think if we don’t do that, we deny our community the opportunity to enter the mess with us and then be with us through it.  How does community hold us when we are a pile of pieces?

“Find Community” is one of the chapters in Breathe Again.  As an extrovert, I shied away from the cancer community quite a bit because I felt I couldn’t be the glue in someone else’s world while my world was in pieces.  I thought, “I don’t want to get close to people who might die.  I don’t need them.  I’ve got my people.”  All sorts of things I was thinking.  But what you are saying is so true.  We need the people around us and we need to let them in.

Friends and family.

And we need to find people who have walked the journey we’re walking.  As much as Al and my close friends and family loved me and were sitting in the mess with me, they didn’t know what it was like to sit inside a scan machine and not know if the radiologist was going to see lights twinkling everywhere and your body lit up.  They didn’t know what it was like to have your ostomy bag leak in Target.  But finding those people who do get that… they can help emotionally and spiritually and practically in a way that your other friends just can’t.  

So, find your specific kind of community.

I think we are made for community and built in the image of a God who is community by his nature but at the same time we kind of shy away from it cuz it’s scary and you have to be vulnerable and it’s messy.  I call it The Community Conundrum: we want it but we shy away from it, so how do we dance our way through it?  I say we step in to the community around us and we step out to the community who gets us.

But eventually, I am the only one going in to the scan, just me and God.  We talk a lot about that here on the blog, that even my husband and best friends can’t go with me all the way, and it is only the presence of God that can calm me in those moments.  I’ve had to learn to experience his presence in new ways. 

I totally agree.  The way it worked for me was at times and I’m sure you had moments like this where things were so scary.  They cut bits out and reconnected parts and left me with an ostomy bag, which was temporary but I had for nearly 8 months.  When I woke up from that surgery, well you know what hospitals are like, it’s quiet and there’s a low humming and a dim fluorescent light and I woke up and realized the sheets were wet.    I realized it was blood.  I was lying in a pool of blood.  You know, I’ve been to the med school of Grey’s Anatomy; I know that that’s not good.  So I called for help.  But in that moment of waiting for help to come, to either be rushed back into surgery or to be told that everything’s alright, all I could manage to do was breathe in Jesus and breathe out the fear.  Breathe in Jesus and breathe out the fear.  

I’d love to say that the room filled with a glorious white light and everything was fine.  But as I leaned into him, I felt his presence and I was able to stay calm with him.  

Oh my.  The emotions that must have been rolling through.

With the emotions, do I choose to take stuff to Jesus or do I choose to not.  And we can choose where we go with stuff and where we go when we’re alone.  We can choose to go to God or not.  

I got to a place where I couldn’t pray anything that made sense.  But I remembered that there is power in the name of Jesus.  So when I needed to go through a scan or surgery, I just laid there and said his name, “Jesus.  Jesus.”


You talk a lot about the word “thrive.”  How did that word come to be your word?

When I was diagnosed, I was determined to survive.  I’m a Brit with a stiff and perfectly waxed upper lip so I was determined to survive.  So I was strong and a make-it-happen sort of person. My stiff upper lip, my faith, my strength, my determination and my grit were going to make me survive.  But then it came to a point where that’s all I was doing, merely surviving.  Then I met people online in a cancer community that called themselves Cancer Thrivers.  And I liked that.  

There is something in that that says, “Yes, life sucks, it’s really hard, but I’m going to grab the most out of it right now.”  I think we say, “Yes, Jesus came to give me abundant life but I’m in a storm right now, that he also said we’d have, so I’m gonna get through this storm and then abundant life will be waiting for me when I’m through this.”  So we start waiting, and saying, “If I can just get through this…” or, “When this is done….”  But, for so many Cancer Thrivers, they didn’t know it would ever be over.  This is true for people with depression too or chronic pain or a child with special needs that are very challenging.  These things aren’t going to go away.  What these Thrivers helped me realize is that this abundant life that God has for us is available right now in the middle of this storm.  

Stop waiting, live the abundant life now.

The disservice we’ve done ourselves is to equate the Facebook Fabulous Life with the abundant life.  We’re constantly waiting until life is happy, skippy, healthy and wealthy to say ok, we’re living abundantly.  But I don’t think that’s what abundance is.  I think it’s joy and peace and comfort and connection and laughter and intimacy and all those things.  So I talk about thriving and not just surviving.

This makes me think of Switchfoot’s song, Thrive.  It’s all about that.

You can find Niki everywhere:

Buy Niki’s book, Breathe Again, at bookstores now.  Or get the audiobook, read by Niki in here lovely British accent by going here.

Also, because Niki is so kind, you can download the first chapter of her book for FREE by going here .

Finally, go see Niki live and in person.  She’ll be traveling all over the country this fall with the She Found Joy tour.  Those dates and more can be found here.

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