In her new book, cancer survivor Niki Hardy explores how fear and faith can coexist, and how life can be full — even when facing our greatest challenges.
By Page Leggett
Photographs by Peter Taylor
A Charlottean by way of Oxford, England, Niki Hardy was diagnosed with rectal cancer in 2012 at the age of 43. At the time, the mother of three was grieving the loss of her mother and very recent loss of her sister to cancer.
On a sunny afternoon in May, Hardy sat with me on the back porch of her Myers Park home — with Charlie and Chester, her goldendoodles, at our feet and hot tea in our teacups.
We talked about her cancer (and mine), how she came to write a book about the experience, and how fear and faith can coexist. Hardy and her pastor husband, Al, moved to the U.S. to start CityChurch Charlotte in Plaza Midwood in 2006. Our conversation has been edited for length.
I love your voice — and I’m not just talking about your British accent.
With this book, I felt that I was just having a chat. I wanted it to feel like you were sitting down for a cup of tea with a friend — not that you were being, you know, taught something.
That’s exactly what it felt like. I felt a connection, and not just because we both had cancer in our cabooses. For instance, you write that you like order — me, too. Describe how cancer messed with your orderly life.
Well, life had already been tossed around a bit. My mum and [my sister] Jo had recently died of cancer. I was still reeling from that. And then I got my diagnosis. I talk in the book about how I wouldn’t know an emotion if it came up and introduced itself to me. Al is the much more emotionally intelligent one of us. I’m more like: I don’t know what this is called, but I want to hit someone.
As for the timing, I thought: Are you kidding me? Has the heat-seeking missile of death locked in on me?
As far as our children were concerned, they knew their grandma and my sister. They thought: People who get cancer die, and die quickly. … You feel a little like a puppet on a string. You are dancing to the tune of the doctors. Suddenly, someone else is cooking your meals — which is a complete gift — and driving your kids to activities, which is also a complete gift. You’ve got treatments and bloodwork, and your body doesn’t feel like it’s your own because you’ve got a drug that could strip paint coursing through you.
You also write about how you had to “hold hands with peace and fear in the same moment.”
I don’t think doubt and faith are mutually exclusive. Doubt brings our faith to life. I didn’t doubt that God was there, but I went through a period where I wondered if God was mad at me. The logical, theologically educated, left side of my brain knew, of course, He’s not mad at me. He loves me. But the intuitive right side of my brain was running wild. Pain and peace were present at the same time, and I never knew that was possible.
How did you talk about your cancer?
[My husband and I] decided to be open and honest about it. First, with the kids, we told them about my cancer and that we were trusting God. We also quickly told our congregation. We pastor in a way that’s very real and upfront. People prayed for us and offered so much help.
I started a CaringBridge site to keep friends updated. It became a way to help people who were dealing with not just cancer but any of life’s challenges. After my treatment was over, people asked me not to stop the posts. They suggested I start a blog. I didn’t even know what a blog was!
You wrote that you felt you had to protect your husband from your fears. I’ve talked to other cancer survivors who have had similar experiences. We feel the need to be cheerful warriors.
Yes, I think vulnerability is a scary place to hang out. I wanted to protect Al from how I was feeling, because he was already dealing with so much. He had his own fears about what my cancer meant … It felt that to be totally honest would burden him. What we ultimately realized, though, was being honest about our fears brought us closer together.
Your book goes beyond cancer and offers inspiration for anyone who’s thrown a curveball in life — whether a divorce or job loss or grief. At what point did you decide your audience was bigger than just the cancer community?
The message that was burning within me wasn’t so much about cancer, but about living life to the fullest. That came about through meeting the “thrivers” — the people who have late-stage cancer and are living their lives, anyway. They weren’t denying that life was bad — really bad. They weren’t glossing over it. They were saying: Life stinks right now, but I’m going to grab all the goodness out of it I can. That was so enticing, so potent …
Did having cancer deepen your faith?
All the questioning deepened my relationship with God. I have a confidence that God is good even when life isn’t.
How else did cancer change you?
It’s given me more empathy. I’m quite a cut-and-dried person. It’s encouraged me not to wait. I just got back from visiting my stepfather, who’s 89, in Vancouver. And I went to visit my dad recently for his 80th birthday. This is what’s precious in life.
What did having cancer teach you about how to show up for a friend in crisis?
People [in a crisis] aren’t looking for advice. They just need someone to sit with them in that space of unknowing. I think it’s a real gift when we can do that.
One of my great friends, when I told her about my diagnosis, said, “Well, that sucks.” And it was just the perfect answer.
In life, no one gets to skip the tough stuff. We’d like to think, after living through one crisis: Well, I’m now done with my trauma. But bad stuff happens to good people. I want people to know: Life doesn’t have to be pain-free to be full. It’s possible to thrive — not just survive — no matter what life throws at you. SP
Like a cup of tea with an old friend: Niki Hardy’s book, Breathe Again How to Live Well When Life Falls Apart, will be available Aug. 6. An audiobook, which Hardy narrates, also comes out in early August. Follow Niki on Instagram @niki.hardy, and follow her blog at nikihardy.com.