What I learned: 5 lessons from leukemia survivor Nicole Schulz

November 19, 2015 | by Abe Rosenberg

When she was 14, there was no stopping Nicole Schulz. She led the quintessential Southern California life: cheerleader, surfer and skateboarder. To top it off, she was also a former Miss Teen California and an avid rodeo rider. The second oldest of six kids, the self-described adrenaline junkie loved her full-steam-ahead pace, and the future looked just fine.

Then, during cheerleading practice one day, Nicole fainted. A profound fatigue then set in and didn’t go away.

“I was sleeping 18 hours a day,” she recalls.

On the day after Christmas in 2005, Nicole went for a blood test.

“I didn't even get out of my PJs,” she said. “I figured I'd be back in an hour.”

A sudden detour

It would be five months before she'd return home. And that was only the beginning.

The results of Nicole’s blood test were so alarming, her doctor immediately sent her to City of Hope for a bone marrow biopsy. The test revealed a case of acute myelogenous leukemia so aggressive that doctors started her on chemotherapy that morning.

The chemotherapy worked for a short time. Next came total body radiation, which was followed by a bone marrow transplant. Nicole's condition improved enough for her to return to school and try to resume her interrupted teen life.

But two years later, the cancer returned, and Nicole had to do it all over again: more chemo, a second transplant. Month after difficult month spent in the hospital taught Nicole a great deal about herself. She learned what matters most, and how to face down even the toughest adversary.

“You cannot give up,” she says. “You must actively fight, every single day.”

Ten years later, Nicole is cancer-free. She’s thankful to be alive, the victor in a battle filled with “gnarly” moments which, in her words, “kicked my butt.” Her inspiring story is now one of several patient stories featured in “The Miracle of Science with Soul,” a campaign that highlights City of Hope’s unique approach to patient treatment.

Here, she shares five lessons she learned battling cancer during her teenage years.

1. Decide to be happy.

Make an active decision to be happy, optimistic and positive, even if you don't always feel that way. Don't give in to depression, an easy trap that will only make your situation worse. If necessary, “fake it until you make it,” she says. “Kicking and screaming won't do you any good.”

Do those things that change your outlook. Get out of the house. Go for a walk (Nicole loves hiking with her Australian shepherds), play music, be with friends, do whatever it takes to refocus your mind.

2. Expect bad days.

There will be good days and there will be awful days — it’s all normal. “Just ride the waves,” Nicole said.

3. Get ready to grow up.

“Here I was, this self-centered teenaged cheerleader, in total denial, just wanting to get back to my old life,” Nicole said. “Thinking about that stuff now seems so petty. I'm a different person now. I grew up. I discovered what's really important, like reaching out to others who need help.”

4. Leaning on faith can help.

“I had this 'Come to God' moment when I was down to 75 pounds and the doctors gave me maybe three days to live,” she said. “But God gave me a U-turn, and now I'm taking steps to strengthen my relationship with Him.”

Raised in a “nonpracticing” Christian family, Nicole now attends church regularly, takes classes and volunteers to help fellow congregants.

5. Family is your backbone.

Those closest to you will be tested like no one else. They will also form your strongest backbone of support, and together you may reach new levels of understanding.

“My parents are divorced — they weren’t even speaking to each other before all this happened,” Nicole said. “Now though, a lot of bridge-building and reconciliation has taken place. We're all much closer.”

Embracing the future

Nicole's disease and the powerful therapies used to treat it have left her with other health issues. Most recently, Nicole underwent knee replacement surgery because the steroids used during her cancer fight depleted her body of calcium.

But don't expect this whirlwind of positive energy to slow down, even in the face of new challenges. Nicole looks for every opportunity to give back, working with her “second family” at City of Hope, attending fundraisers, speaking with donors and encouraging kids in the same pediatric ward where she lived for so long.

She consulted on the 2009 film, “My Sister's Keeper,” about a young leukemia patient and her sister. She plans to write a book and she's launched a blog, Soaked and Stoked, that's all about the active life and staying positive.

Learn more about our leukemia treatments and research and our unique patient experience. If you have been diagnosed with leukemia or are looking for a second opinion consultation about your treatment, request an appointment online or contact us at 800-826-HOPE. Please visit Making Your First Appointment for more information.

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