Sometimes, an accident can be a blessing in disguise. Treating a minor injury after a fall, doctors for then seventeen-year-old Nicole Lakin of Reading discovered a cancer that might have otherwise gone undetected until it was much further along. Thanks to a minor tumble, the disease was found and treated, while Nicole kept riding and showing her horses throughout the course of her chemotherapy.
Nicole Lakin was riding Alaska in a Junior Jumper class in Wellington, Florida in early February of this year when she took a fall. Making a fast turn into a jump she hit a standard with her leg and lost her stirrup.
"I was honestly being a little overzealous, and he shifted a little," Nicole
recalls. "I'm trying to take more risks at different times. I try to be pretty
bold and brave."
The fall didn't seem to be a bad one, but her ribs hurt all that week. After schooling her horse one day, she landed hard while dismounting and jarred herself, bringing back the pain.
To make sure there was nothing worse than bruised or cracked ribs, Nicole went in for tests. The rib injury was no worse than expected, but the tests also found a mass in her chest. At first, it was thought it might be a thymus gland problem, so Nicole's parents brought her back to Pennsylvania for more tests at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).
"It's the most incredible hospital in the world," Nicole's mother Maralyn Lakin said.
Tests and Surgery
Everything progressed rapidly from there, starting with more tests and surgery. Because the mass was near her heart, one of her lungs had to be collapsed during the operation. What they found was stage two Hodgkin's, which appeared to be malignant.
The next step was four months of chemotherapy, a process that is physically debilitating and emotionally challenging. Nicole suffered through hair loss, nausea, fluid retention, and more, but in spite of the challenges, she did not stop riding. At one point, she was so weak from the treatments that she would finish a class nearly exhausted, but she always finished.
"She would have chemo and go to a horse show the next day," Maralyn said. "She won her first high junior jumper class the day after chemo."
"It was something I wanted," Nicole said. "I guess I had to push myself physically, but mentally I was all there."
While she worried for her daughter's health, Maralyn understood why Nicole wanted to keep riding. "It's her passion," she said. "Stopping would be like yanking the stitches out of a cut, it's such a piece of her life."
Nicole trains with Frank Madden, and rides in the junior hunters, junior jumpers and equitation.
"I love showing with Frank. He makes it fun. Every day is an new exciting day," Nicole said.
Her hunter, Lead Foot, suffered an injury this year, so she has been concentrating more on the jumper division. For jumpers, she has been riding Alaska and Opus Sept.
"I love them both," Nicole said of her jumpers. "Opus Sept is a new ride. He's incredible."
After four months of chemotherapy Nicole's prognosis looks good. Her last treatment took place just as the Devon Horse Show began. Nicole endured her last chemo session on May 24 and rode in equitation at Devon on May 25. She did not get a ribbon this time, but did manage a call back in a field of 125 riders.
Three weeks later she qualified both Alaska and his stablemate, Opus Sept, for the Junior/Amateur-Owner Classic at the Maddens' Beacon Hill Show Jumping Classic.
Nicole was so committed to riding at Devon that she even missed her graduation ceremony from Lancaster Country Day School to ride in the Dixon Oval. "I love showing here. It's a fun place to show," she said. "Every time you walk into this ring it's an amazing experience."
The incident has changed her perspective on life. Now her goals have been modified to trying to make her area's North American Young Riders championship squad "on the B team (rather then the A one) because I haven't shown that much this year." And she hopes after she begins college at New York University this autumn to take her jumpers to the Pennsylvania National in Harrisburg and to the Washington International.
Maralyn has tried to be as supportive as possible through the experience. "I think it's almost harder now. At the time, I was trying to make it into the most positive experience I could," she said.
Nicole thanks her parents, her brother and her two sisters for their support as well as all of her good friends who helped her get through this ordeal. Now Nicole is looking forward to attending New York University, and soon moving up to ride in the Amateur Jumper divisions.
Maralyn is extremely appreciative of the care and concern shown by the staff at CHOP. "The oncology nurses are the most incredible people in the world," she said.
She is taking her thanks beyond words, and embarking on fund raising projects to help CHOP purchase a new PET scan machine. Maralyn is Sr. Vice President of Public Relations, Marketing and Internet for her family's business, Boscov's Department Stores. As new stores are opened there are normally fund raising days to introduce the new Boscov's to the community, plus Maralyn hopes to sell special edition stuffed bears in all the stores as a fund raiser.
Though this has been a trying time for the Lakin family, Maralyn hopes that her daughter's experience will bring hope and strength to others. "What's important is that there is hope and support for other people going through a similar situation. You don't have to go home and go to bed."