Nikki Kaye

Nikki Kaye was 36 years old and in the prime of her po­lit­i­cal ca­reer when she was di­ag­nosed with breast can­cer last year. Now in re­cov­ery and back at work, she talks to Ni­cola Russell about how the ill­ness has taught her to re­fo­cus her life, and her fu­tur


re­veals how she got her life back af­ter breast can­cer

When po­lit­i­cal whiz kid Nikki Kaye was di­ag­nosed with breast can­cer six months ago, she re­solved to re­learn how to take care of her­self be­fore she re­turned to look­ing af­ter her port­fo­lios and her elec­torate.

Nikki was only 28 years old when she be­came the first Na­tional MP ever to hold the cov­eted Auck­land Cen­tral seat, and just 32 when she was in­ducted into cabi­net. In hind­sight, she says she had thrown her­self so heav­ily into her ca­reer that she had put aside some of the ba­sics in her own life.

“I was like a teenager; I couldn’t cook, and be­cause I was a min­is­ter and had al­ways been driven, I couldn’t drive.”

When Nikki re­ceived her di­ag­no­sis in Septem­ber 2016 she went di­rectly to the then Prime Min­is­ter, John Key, to re­sign from her port­fo­lios as Min­is­ter of Civil De­fence, ACC and Youth. He re­fused to ac­cept her res­ig­na­tion.

“I was such a mess,” says Nikki, who is speak­ing to The Aus­tralian Women’s Weekly from her cen­tral Auck­land home. “It hap­pened so quickly and I thought it was the right thing to do, but he said – and you might not be able to print this – ‘You are not f**king go­ing any­where.’ He was amaz­ing.”

Port­fo­lios were shifted to al­low

Nikki to take time off for treat­ment. When she stopped work­ing, she re­alised how lit­tle time she had spent just be­ing at home in the sim­ple Pon­sonby villa over­look­ing a neigh­bour­ing ur­ban farm that she shares with a flat­mate and two cats. There, while re­cu­per­at­ing, Nikki taught her­self to cook and gar­den and she gave her diet an over­haul.

“I’m learn­ing to ap­pre­ci­ate the sim­pler things in life. I can do the ba­sics of cook­ing now and I have be­come a bit of a health freak as well as a hippy. I eat a lot of fruit and veg, drink a lot of wa­ter and kom­bucha and I eat a lot less meat. Ev­ery day I think, ‘How am I go­ing to be good to my body to­day?’

“We all lead th­ese busy lives and we don’t nec­es­sar­ily trea­sure our great­est as­set enough, which is our body.”

Nikki found the lump in her breast while at home on a Satur­day in late Au­gust 2016. It was the size of a small pea. “I had a sore arm, which I thought was from tex­ting, and I had been feel­ing a lit­tle bit un­well but I wouldn’t nor­mally check my breasts. I still think it’s a bloody mir­a­cle I found it.”

On find­ing the lump, Nikki rang her un­cle, a doc­tor, who told her to book her­self an ap­point­ment with a GP im­me­di­ately. From there she was re­ferred for a mam­mo­gram.

“It’s quite blurry that pe­riod,” she says, “and still quite raw. I went on the Tues­day for a mam­mo­gram and an ul­tra­sound and they weren’t sure, so they did biop­sies.”

She re­ceived the news on the Fri­day that she had breast can­cer and an­nounced it pub­licly the fol­low­ing Mon­day, just over a week af­ter she had found the lump. “I had man­aged to tell my im­me­di­ate fam­ily but I had friends who didn’t know and they found out on the 6 o’clock news. My phone al­most broke be­cause I had so many mes­sages from peo­ple of­fer­ing ev­ery­thing from diet tips to babysit­ting my cats.

“So many beau­ti­ful peo­ple opened their hearts to me and now I have peo­ple who have just been di­ag­nosed con­tact me, and if I can help them, then I do. I think that is a role I will end up play­ing in the fu­ture. In fact, I had a per­son con­tact me to­day – I feel for them, it just brings back those first few weeks.”

She now wants to give back on a na­tional level. “That was one of the rea­sons I came back to Par­lia­ment – not only am I re­ally pas­sion­ate about

ed­u­ca­tion, but I think there are some things I can do around breast can­cer. There’s be­ing aware – know­ing what the signs can be in terms of lumps and not muck­ing around – but our screen­ing also needs to be as ro­bust as pos­si­ble, and ac­cess to medicines is a re­ally im­por­tant is­sue at the mo­ment.”

Nikki says one of the best things to come out of hav­ing breast can­cer is im­proved re­la­tion­ships with friends and fam­ily. “My fam­ily was amaz­ing

– I am a lot closer to my mum and my sis­ter, and my brother and step­fa­ther have been amaz­ing too.”

She has re­turned to par­lia­ment this year as As­so­ciate Min­is­ter of Ed­u­ca­tion and Min­is­ter of Youth with a new­found aware­ness of her own health. She re­alises her “em­pa­thy and drive to help peo­ple” means she needs to take ex­tra care of her­self. “I think one of my strengths has al­ways been that I am com­pas­sion­ate and care about peo­ple, but if you re­ally want to help lots of peo­ple, you have to be happy and healthy your­self. Now I pri­ori­tise that and that means I can help more peo­ple.

“Be­ing present is re­ally im­por­tant,” she con­tin­ues. “My mates and fam­ily have said to me that be­fore I was al­ways in a rush and look­ing at the next thing or the next per­son I was go­ing to help. I prob­a­bly didn’t look close enough to home to help the peo­ple around me or my­self.”

It was fam­ily that sup­ported her through the ini­tial shock of her can­cer di­ag­no­sis, but there were others – even her beloved pets – who were there for her dur­ing some of the tough­est mo­ments. “My cats are amaz­ing,” she says of her trea­sured Bri­tish short­hairs, which have quite a pres­ence on her so­cial me­dia ac­counts. “I cried a lot, so hav­ing a fur-ball to cud­dle in the mid­dle of the night was great.”

While Nikki has fo­cused heav­ily on her diet and life­style as part of her re­cov­ery, she says she also had to take a step back to avoid be­ing bam­boo­zled by the masses of – and some­times con­tra­dic­tory – in­for­ma­tion avail­able.

“I re­mem­ber at one point stand­ing in the kitchen eat­ing black seed oil, and then wal­nuts and then blue­ber­ries… and then I’d go off and read some­thing about not drink­ing too much green tea… It can be over­whelm­ing.”

Nikki is re­luc­tant to go into de­tails about her can­cer treat­ment, but will say she had a va­ri­ety of treat­ments and is “now pretty well”.

“The doc­tors have said I am ca­pa­ble of go­ing back to work. I have had the ma­jor­ity of my treat­ment, I have a lit­tle bit left, but it is fair to say I am feel­ing pretty good.”

The tena­cious MP was raised in Re­muera. Her mother and fa­ther sep­a­rated when she was seven – she and her sis­ter stayed with their mother and her brother moved with their fa­ther. Nikki had lit­tle to do with her fa­ther un­til she was in her 20s. “I think I also grew up pretty young, be­cause of my par­ents split­ting up, and be­came in­de­pen­dent early in life be­cause of a range of things in the fam­ily.”

Nikki has a half-brother and half­sis­ter from her dad’s first mar­riage be­fore he met her mum, and four half-sib­lings from his most re­cent mar­riage. The Kiwi who was in the news in early Fe­bru­ary for fac­ing a first-de­gree mur­der charge in the US is the son of Nikki’s mother’s part­ner. Be­cause the case is be­fore the courts when we speak, Nikki can say lit­tle about it. “It is very dif­fi­cult and sad,” she says. “He is the son of the man I con­sider my step­fa­ther (even though he and Mum are not mar­ried) and it is re­ally hard.”

Her mother and step­fa­ther met when Nikki was 10 so he has been a big part of her life and, along with Nikki’s grand­mother, he helped her hard­work­ing mother put Nikki through pri­vate school. While she de­scribes them as swing vot­ers, and not par­tic­u­larly po­lit­i­cal, she says she was en­cour­aged by them to speak her mind and to “fight for what I be­lieved in”.

Nikki ad­mits ini­tially be­ing quite a “naughty” pupil at high school, but she ex­celled in ath­let­ics, rep­re­sent­ing Auck­land, loved de­bat­ing and even­tu­ally went on to be­come Head Girl.

It was at Otago Univer­sity, study­ing ge­net­ics and law, that Nikki be­came heav­ily in­volved in the Young Nats. At her first meet­ing, she met MP Kather­ine Rich and was in­spired to be­come women’s vice-chair for the South­ern Young Nats.

“Then I was in­vited to speak at a po­lit­i­cal con­fer­ence in 1999 on a re­mit for low­er­ing the drink­ing age from 20 to 18. Prime Min­is­ter Ship­ley was there and she said to me, ‘We will lower it this year,’ and our res­o­lu­tion was the one that went to the party con­fer­ence and helped push it for­ward. I think I had a taste then of a bit of an abil­ity to make stuff hap­pen.”

She then moved to Vic­to­ria Univer­sity, where she was of­fered a job as a re­searcher for Bill English, and fin­ished her ge­net­ics de­gree while work­ing full time.

“That year we went to the worst elec­tion re­sult in the his­tory of the

“I cried a lot, so hav­ing a cat to cud­dle was great. ”

Na­tional Party. It was a pretty tough time so I learnt a lot, but I also had a lot of re­spon­si­bil­ity. I was 22/23 and work­ing on some wel­fare re­form with Kather­ine Rich and Bill.”

Af­ter Bill English was rolled by

Don Brash, Nikki headed to the UK on her OE and, over three-and-a-half years, worked her way up in lo­cal gov­ern­ment and pro­ject man­age­ment roles, which peaked with a job at the Hal­i­fax Bank of Scot­land.

“I was earn­ing more than I am now as a cabi­net min­is­ter. I was in Lon­don, at 27, and could see I could make a whole lot of money, and I could see that was not go­ing to make me happy.”

Know­ing there was a good chance Na­tional would win the elec­tion in 2008, Nikki left her boyfriend in Lon­don and re­turned home.

“I ar­rived back on a plane pretty late in the process in De­cem­ber 2007 and thought, ‘I have to give it a crack or I will al­ways be won­der­ing.’ So I came back and saw Bill English and Murray McCully, and said, ‘I’m 27, I know I am re­ally young but I am look­ing to stand,’ and they were very sup­port­ive of that.

“That meant so much to me. I think if they had been neg­a­tive I may have just got back on the plane to the UK.”

She chose to con­test the Na­tional Party can­di­dacy for Auck­land Cen­tral, de­spite strong com­pe­ti­tion from within the party.

“I knew that Auck­land Cen­tral was where my heart was – it was one of the youngest seats in the coun­try, and I felt I was a young pro­fes­sional who was best to rep­re­sent it, so I started walk­ing the streets of Auck­land Cen­tral to get the mem­ber­ship num­bers I needed.”

Nikki won the nom­i­na­tion, and then caused the up­set of the 2008 elec­tion when she won the Auck­land Cen­tral seat against Labour’s Ju­dith Tizard – the seat had been held by left wing par­ties for 90 years.

Asked what she thinks got her through, Nikki says it was the strength of her con­vic­tion.

“I think peo­ple could see that I might have been young but I had a very good sense of who I am. You are con­stantly tested on your views in pol­i­tics – and if you don’t have the abil­ity to be strong on your po­si­tion and with­stand what may be crit­i­cism at times, then it is very dif­fi­cult. I find New Zealan­ders re­spect you re­gard­less of what your views are, as long as they are well thought out and you have the courage of your con­vic­tions and can make de­ci­sions.”

Nikki says while she has ex­pe­ri­enced sex­ism from the pub­lic – with peo­ple com­ment­ing on her looks and what she wears – she hasn’t faced it within the party, which has sup­ported her as a young woman in pol­i­tics, and also per­son­ally when she was sick.

Both John Key and Bill English vis­ited Nikki reg­u­larly while she was un­well. She re­calls an af­ter­noon the Prime Min­is­ter ar­rived while her neph­ews were vis­it­ing. “The PM called and said, ‘I am on my way,’ and I was in my run­ning gear and the place was a mess! I jumped in the shower and said to my neph­ews, ‘The Prime Min­is­ter is com­ing around,’ and they started scream­ing, ‘The Prime Min­is­ter is com­ing!’ When I got out of the shower they were on In­sta­gram Live go­ing,

‘The Prime Min­is­ter of New Zealand is com­ing to our house,’” she says, im­i­tat­ing their voiceover with a laugh.

John Key’s res­ig­na­tion came as a blow to Nikki, but that was soft­ened by Bill English tak­ing the role. “I was pretty shocked, but when I got my head around it more and sat down and talked to him, I knew it was the best thing for John per­son­ally. Most peo­ple saw him as Prime Min­is­ter but I also see him as a friend. And I thought, ac­tu­ally, for Max, Stephanie and Bron­agh to have given him up for 10 years as leader and eight as Prime Min­is­ter is a mas­sive sac­ri­fice.”

Asked if she wants to be Prime Min­is­ter her­self, Nikki says there are other peo­ple bet­ter suited to the role. She is aim­ing high, though, and wants to be­come Min­is­ter of Ed­u­ca­tion this year. But she says while there is a strong chance of get­ting the role, she is re­luc­tant to pre-empt any­thing.

It will be a big year, with the elec­tion loom­ing, but Nikki has a new­found sense of bal­ance to keep her well. She will spend three days a week in her Auck­land Cen­tral elec­torate, where she will care for lo­cal is­sues – as well as her tomato plants and her own health.

ABOVE: Nikki ac­com­pa­ny­ing John Key in her role as a Na­tional MP. She says the for­mer Prime Min­is­ter re­fused to ac­cept her res­ig­na­tion when she be­came un­well and vis­ited her reg­u­larly dur­ing her ill­ness.

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