Bekki Nill inspires others ahead of Hockey Fights Cancer Night for Stars

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“I’m happy to be 60 years old,” Nill said on her birthday, Nov. 9. “I didn’t think I’d see 50. So I’m celebrating just being here another day.”

There’s an element of gratitude in that, but most of the time, Nill, the wife of Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill, celebrates by being a hand to hold, a resource, a rock of support and a model of hope to anyone who’s struggling in their own battle against cancer.

“I am always comfortable talking to people that need to talk to somebody, if they’ve just been diagnosed or are struggling with medicines or finding a doctor,” Bekki said. “It’s a comfort level for me because I’ve walked it for so many years. If you mention a drug, I’ve probably been on it. If you’ve lost your hair, I’ve lost mine twice.

“Every day isn’t pretty but with those trials and tribulations, there is something bigger. I have great comfort in that, joy, and I know this sounds crazy, but I have this amount of faith.”

 

[RELATED: Hockey Fights Cancer coverage]

 

Hockey Fights Cancer month in the NHL will be a focus when the Stars host the Edmonton Oilers at American Airlines Center on Tuesday (8:30 p.m. ET; ESPN+, HULU, SNW, NHL LIVE). Around the Stars, it’s also another opportunity for Nill and her strong faith to continue making a difference.

A fit and healthy 37-year-old Nill was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999. The ensuing chemotherapy and surgery led to a good outcome, that is until cancer resurfaced as stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, having spread to her shoulder, ribs, liver and bones, in 2011.

She had not felt well for months, and it was eventually diagnosed as incurable. 

“I was in a lot of pain, didn’t want to eat anything,” she said. “I knew with the way I felt that I was not going to live very long. My doctors didn’t say to me, ‘You’ve got a month.’ I didn’t know what my time was, but I decided I was not going to waste whatever time I had in not spending time with people that I loved.

“Jim came home from the office one day and I was sitting out the back patio recording storybooks for the grandkids that I [thought] I’m probably never going to meet. I gave clothes away. I gave shoes away. I didn’t want my kids to have to deal with those burdens. I think it’s just natural to try not to be a burden. That’s where my headspace was.”

Poor prognosis aside, Bekki had intense treatments that produced good results and during this time, the quality time visits and visitors she valued turned from what seemed like goodbyes to a new resolve about a way to live, boosted by her faith.

“I started to feel God is keeping me here for a purpose and I’ve got to stop thinking I’m going to die tomorrow, and I’ve got to start living in this moment,” she said. “Once I recognized I don’t have any control over this … I just had to trust I’ll go when it’s my time to go. It was a release of freedom and peace that came along with it and that’s how I’ve been able to live every day since then.”

One blessing she received was her husband’s decision to hold back the discouraging outlook confirmed by an exploratory surgery in 2011. 

“Jim knew I had a short amount of time to live, and he was told that by one of the doctors,” Bekki said. “Jim and I just had this conversation not long ago. It’s probably a good thing he didn’t tell me. I’m thankful he didn’t share that with me. Here I am 10 years later. I didn’t need to know that. Ultimately, God has a plan and I had trusted that.”

The doctor who diagnosed her second bout with cancer was a family friend, and Jim said they struggled with an impossible dilemma.

“He met me in the waiting room [after the surgery] and pretty much put his arms around me,” Jim said. “He said, ‘This doesn’t look good.’ So how do you mention that to her? Was it the time? So I wanted to wait for the right time to tell her. And the doctor was the same way. So we kind of waited a while.

“To get those words, now you’re thinking about the kids, they were still at home and pretty young at the time, how do you deal with that?”

One day at a time, it turned out.

Treatment improved the situation in her bones, her shoulder, her ribs. The cancer in her liver remains an issue but cutting out alcohol and a strict diet — the Nills are decidedly vegan — have been ways to manage it.

“I’m telling you, moving to Texas and being around the smell of barbeque, how am I going to do this?” Bekki said, laughing. “But you do. Barbeque sauce can go on other things.”

Once Bekki began to feel better, she was able to resume walking and other physical exercise she loves and as important, reveling in her children, daughters Jenna and Kristin and son Trevor, and three grandchildren, with a fourth due near Christmas.

“I did those storybooks thinking I’d never get to experience this,” Bekki said.

Her treatments continue, and continue to change, depending on effectiveness. The latest immunotherapy infusions have come every three weeks for the past four-plus years, and they have their own side effects, some neuropathy in her hands and feet. That’s put a dent in her running, but instead she had taken up spin sessions on a stationary bike.

Another of the blessings once she rebounded from the 2011 diagnosis was a redoubled effort to continue making connections and help others facing cancer challenges.

The range of her efforts includes a Bible study group of young women in the Dallas area, hosting an annual night for survivors in a suite for a Stars game at American Airlines Center and active support for staff members of the Stars organization and at least one other NHL team whose families are encountering all the difficulties cancer brings.

Her own support system through her battle with cancer has been led by her husband of 37 years.

“We were meant to be,” Bekki said. “He’s been a rock through everything. He’s humble, he cares for other people, he’s supportive. He embraces you with his warmth and personality. He can turn conversation about him to one about you so quickly and you wonder, how did he do that?

“When you marry somebody and you say, ‘in sickness and in health,’ well, I’m pretty sure I thought it would be the flu here or there, bringing chicken soup. Of our 37 years of marriage, I’ve been sick for 20. And he’s on the outside of it and I think it’s much harder on the person on the outside to witness your loved one going through it.”

Jim downplays that difficulty.

“Is it harder on the other one?” he said. “I could see at times where it might be. But I’ve been so blessed because of her faith and her attitude, that she’s made it easier for myself and our kids. She’s been such a role model for all of us, what she’s been through. It would have been easy for her to say, at one point, ‘I’m done.’ But she’s been the opposite. No matter what she’s been going through, treatments or not feeling well or not knowing what the next outcome was going to be, she never made it about herself.

“She’s wanted to help other people. God’s blessed her with this. It’s natural for her. She loves to meet people. She’s thankful for her relationships in her life and she just wants to keep adding more people to her life.

“But it’s her humility that glows from her. She just has that glow around people.”

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