When Nic Russell was diagnosed with breast cancer it felt like a "sick joke".

Russell had been showering in a hospital bathroom with her daughter Kenzie when she looked down and noticed a lump on her left nipple.

The single mother was in hospital in Auckland, New Zealand, at her two-year-old daughter's side as Kenzie received treatment for Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that grows in the bones or bone tissue.

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Kenzie was diagnosed with the cancer in April 2005, and in the weeks that followed Russell, then 31, lost a drastic amount of weight.

While in hospital, Russell and daughter Kenzie met Prince William. Photo / Supplied
While in hospital, Russell and daughter Kenzie met Prince William. Photo / Supplied

But it wasn't until she noticed the lump on her breast that she began to fear there was something more sinister behind the changes in her body.

"With Kenzie being in hospital herself I'd actually lost quite a bit of weight and everybody put the weight loss down to the stress of having a very sick baby and dealing with her cancer diagnosis," Russell, who is sharing her story as part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, told news.com.au.

After discovering the lump Russell had a mammogram and a biopsy, then in July, just three months after Kenzie was diagnosed, doctors delivered the worst news possible — she had cancer too.

"At the time it was like I thought It was some idea of a sick joke. I just couldn't believe that life could be so cruel," she said.

Five weeks later Russell underwent a double mastectomy and reconstruction, after which she discovered it was stage three breast cancer.

But despite the seriousness of her diagnosis, Russell's only thoughts were with Kenzie.

"For me as a mother I was looking at my very sick child and I think her care took precedence. I only wanted to be alive so I could help her and be there for her," she said.


"I didn't think for a moment she would die, I didn't think that I would die."

Kenzie and Nic Russell as they both underwent treatment. Photo / Supplied
Kenzie and Nic Russell as they both underwent treatment. Photo / Supplied

But cruelly just five months after Russell's diagnosis Kenzie died aged three, just as she began to show signs of recovery.

"There was me thinking that her treatment had shown promise, but she ended up getting septicaemia and died, so it was complications from the treatment," Russell said.

"I was looking forward to (next year), thinking that the new year would be a better year. Her cancer side was clear, she was beginning to get her mobility back. And then lo and bold we got the worst thing ever that could happen to any parent — to lose a child in such brutal circumstances."

From then onwards Russell's focus was staying alive so her other child Conor, then only six, wouldn't lose a parent as well as his sister.

All up Russell's treatment included having her ovaries removed, six cycles of chemotherapy and five years of taking breast cancer-fighting drug Letrazole.

She also took Herceptin for 12 months at the recommendation of her oncologist, with the local community fundraising the $100,000 she needed to pay for it.

Tragically, Kenzie died in December 2005. Photo / Supplied
Tragically, Kenzie died in December 2005. Photo / Supplied

"I said at the time, My son was six and all I wanted to be was alive until he got to 18 and anything after that was a bonus and of course Conor is now 19," she said.

"The research that has been done over the years in advancing medicines for breast cancer treatment, I probably wouldn't have survived (without it), and Conor wouldn't have (just) lost his sister — he would have lost his mum."

Her son's plight led Russell to start a charity to provide support to New Zealand families going through similar situations to theirs.

"That's where Kenzie's Gift came into play, the charity we set up in her memory, because there was nothing out there for the psychological needs of children and families who were facing life threatening illnesses and bereavement," she said.

Russell is now cancer-free and credits her survival down to the support she received from her family and the local community.

She also credits the medical advances made possible through Breast Cancer Trials — the largest, independent, oncology clinical trials research group in Australia and New Zealand.

"Women who put themselves through clinical trials I think we've got a lot to be thankful for," Russell said.

"I've got to thank my life for those that have gone before and some of those women haven't survived and some did … all the work that has gone before that has given me a chance at life."