Childhood cancer survivor Nicole Schulz tackles another challenge - the side effects of treatment

November 26, 2018 | by Maxine Nunes

At 14, Nicole Schulz was a girl on the go, a popular cheerleader who loved surfing, skateboarding and rodeo riding. Then she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia — and even that couldn’t stop her. After treatment, which left her with just an inch of hair, she entered the Miss Teen California competition and won.
But cancer wasn’t done with her. During her reigning year, she suffered a severe relapse, and the treatment that saved her life also produced some serious side effects — impairment to her heart, immune system, reproductive system and cognitive abilities. It also caused life-threatening graft-versus-host disease (GVHD), an autoimmune condition that has damaged her digestive system, connective tissue and joints.
Yet that still hasn’t stopped her. Today, at 27, while dealing with all of these conditions, she works as a patient advocate and fundraiser for City of Hope, traveling the country and giving speeches on behalf of children with cancer. That’s not to say it’s always easy.
There’s no way to not have down moments, so you have to fake it till you make it,” she said. “I’ll put on the happiest show music, like 'Hairspray' or 'Wicked,' and blast it and scream at the top of my lungs until I’m not sad.”
Along with that great attitude, there’s another major resource she relies on for help on every level — psychological, cognitive and physical. It’s the Childhood Cancer Survivorship Program at City of Hope, run by Saro Armenian, D.O., M.P.H.
The program utilizes a multidisciplinary team of physicians, psychologists, neurocognitive specialists, family nurse practitioners and consultants, who provide comprehensive care for childhood cancer survivors throughout every decade of their adult life.
“We are now curing about 85 percent of these individuals,” Armenian said, “and we recognize that it’s not enough just to cure our patients of cancer. We really have to provide them with optimal, lifelong health.”
Their regular monitoring program is especially important for patients like Schulz, who was treated before targeted therapies were developed. All of her organs were exposed to radiation, and like many other childhood survivors, one of the biggest risks she’ll face throughout her life is heart failure.
“I’d had a few episodes where my heart felt like it was doing gymnastics and thought I was having a heart attack,” she said, “but in the City of Hope survivorship program, I get regular echocardiograms, EKGs and pulmonary function tests, and it gives me peace of mind.”
She’s also taken advantage of their neurocognitive counseling to restore her reading skills, and psychotherapy has helped her cope with the emotional challenges of survivorship.
“One of the biggest things  — and it was hard for me — was  learning to grieve for who I was before I got sick,” she said. “Now I have a chance to recreate myself, to be a new person. And I can still be happy even though I’m never going to be who I used to be.”
Though she can no longer ride horses or snowboard, she finds happiness hiking or free diving, activities she can still enjoy despite her physical limitations. And she knows that though she can’t have a child of her own, adopting can be a fulfilling option.
In fact, the future is looking better than ever.
“I never used to make plans more than three months ahead because I didn't want to be disappointed when I ended up back in the hospital,” she said. “Now I can honestly say that for the first time in my whole life, I'm not scared to make a future plan. I think I'm going to be here for a while.”
This #GivingTuesday, City of Hope is highlighting the amazing work done to help survivors of pediatric cancer like Nichole Schulz survive and thrive after cancer. City of Hope is dedicated to providing excellent care for cancer patients both before and after treatment. We have made amazing progress using survivorship research insights to modify treatment plans and reduce side effects — but there’s much more work to be done.
Visit CityofHope.org/GivingTuesday to see how you can help.

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