Nicole Lakin, equestrian and cancer survivor, competes aboard Alaska, her jumping partner and the inspiration that kept her going through her long months of chemotherapy treatment. (Photo by Jeremy Lakin.)
by Nancy Degutis
Teenagers rarely think about death; they are more likely to live moment-to- moment in pursuit of passing fancies.
Few teens have ever had to face cancer and battle, minute by minute, day after day, the debilitating effects of treatment. Few come out of that struggle with the outlook of people many times their age. But one young woman did. As a teen she fought that battle and won, and came away with the knowledge of what in life is really important to her. One is a big gray horse that was her partner through it all, in and out of the show ring.
That horse is Alaska, Nicole Lakin's former junior jumper, now her mount in only her third grand prix appearance. Ironically it came minutes after the appearance of a group of cancer survivors who gave a driving demonstration at the Garden State Horse Show.
Lakin, 20, didn't leave the ring in a blaze of glory after her turn around the course in the $50,000 fixture at the May 7-11 show. She made a respectable trip, lowering only one rail, "but that was my fault," said the Reading (Pa.) woman. She had hoped to make it to the elimination round, to go against the likes of Olympians Beezie Madden and McLain Ward who rode off on multiple mounts against each other. The winner was Madden, sister-in-law to Stacia Madden, who co-trains Lakin with Max Amaya.
To go up against those "big guns" of the show jumping world in the initial round was "really cool," said the New York University sophomore who has been in remission for "almost two years to this day." But she doesn't make a big deal about it. To her, those long weeks of cancer treatment in 2006 opened her eyes.
"It made me really appreciate everything in life," she said.
But her uphill battle to health also had other, very personal lessons. "I learned not to take anything for granted in life," said Lakin, a Reading (Pa.) native. "It also taught me what my passion in life was—the horses and especially Alaska."
"I learned how important it is to be happy in life, because you never really know what it going to happen," explained Lakin, who only a few months after chemotherapy went on to win a team Gold Medal and an individual Silver at the 2006 North American Young Riders Championships.
What kept her going through chemotherapy were horses in general, and Alaska in particular. "He seemed to sense I needed help" when she was up on him through her treatments.
Which was good since riding was something she could not give up. "What made me happy then was the horses and going to shows and doing all the same things I had always done. So maybe it may not have been what my doctors recommended but it made me happy. I think that is what powered me through the four months (of chemotherapy). And they were four long months but mentally I needed to do it," said Lakin.
Two years earlier she had an accident on the Florida circuit; that's when doctors discovered the tumor. Up to that time "I had been exhibiting signs of cancer but just ignored them," she recalled. That led to an operation to remove the tumor and then recuperation, which meant, temporarily, no riding. However, Lakin asked Stacia Madden if a friend, Carolyn Curcio, could use Alaska in the low jumpers to keep him tuned up for the day Lakin could return.
When she did, she used each approaching show as a goal to get her over the worst of chemotherapy. She returned to riding, albeit turning in poorer rounds than in her pre-cancer days. Overheating, exhaustion, nausea—she battled all the nasty parts of chemotherapy but still returned to the saddle on Alaska "who made it easier."
Pausing after only her third appearance in a grand prix--the first was at the Monmouth, NJ show in 2007 and the second during the Winter Equestrian Festival in Florida--she offered some important thoughts.
"You live only once, so if there is something that you love to do, there is no reason for you not to take advantage of it. You should not worry about what other people think or be affected by their opinions. I had parents who support me," she said. But the most important thing she took away from her bout with cancer is a strong belief that "if you are lucky enough to find something that you love so much and is so rewarding, you should put everything you are able to into it."