Penn State University
Diagnosis: Lymphoma, ALL
As a high school student, Nikolette Nolte was already recognized as an inspiration and thriver. After winning district gold medals and a medal at states, Nolte was diagnosed with lymphoma. She completed 5 months of chemotherapy and returned to the water in impressive fashion – receiving a medal at the 2018 PIAA Championships in two events. Niki was in remission and seemed to have been on a path back to normalcy. But shortly after she enrolled at Penn State in August of 2018, Nolte was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL). She would leave school, return to chemotherapy and in February 2019, go through the intense and grueling process of an allogeneic bone marrow transplant, which she received from her older sister, Krystal.
The road to recovery this time was even more challenging. It began with simply walking the hallway in the transplant unit at the hospital. After initially regaining some strength, she returned to campus in October 2019 and noted her body was extremely stiff, sore and fatigued. Niki’s recovery was now interrupted by Graft-Versus-Host-Disease (GVHD), a post-transplant complication when donor cells attack the recipient (Niki). For the majority of the year, she would travel to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) for treatment to control the GVHD. Gradually, after tireless work under the guidance and supervision of her care team, Niki had regained most of her swimming endurance.
“I am very thankful with how my recovery has been going and I’m happy with the progress that I’ve made, but I definitely have a long way to go,” Nolte said. “Where I was before was years of training and conditioning and endurance that was built up to that point, and the treatment that I went through not only stripped all of that away but even knocked my body down more than I could have ever imagined. It’s been tough for me sometimes, because the competitive side of me mentally struggles because I know what my body was able to do. I just don’t know what it can do now.”
On January 22, 2021, Niki returned to the water for Penn State to swim her leg of the 200-medley relay race at Northwestern. Her family, coaches, teammates and fans were moved to tears.
“Just getting up on that block and racing was a feeling I have missed so much. Getting to experience that again was truly incredible,” said Nolte, who also raced in the 100-yard breaststroke during the meet. “You can try to mimic a race or meet in practice, but it’s not the same. You don’t have other teams, officials, hearing that whistle blown to take your mark. It’s all completely different, and that adrenalin rush is different too. I still get chills thinking about it,” she said.
While her athletic comeback is extremely inspiring, her motivation to excel in the classroom and her commitment to patient advocacy are equally impressive. She was a force for Penn State’s THON, an annual student-run philanthropic event that enhances the lives of children and families impacted by childhood cancer. Furthermore, Niki is majoring in Biobehavioral Health and has been recognized as a Schreyer Honors Scholar, which promotes academic excellence with integrity. Her personal experiences have led her to pursue a career in the healthcare field.
“I have learned a lot about bedside manner and how important that is,” said Nolte. “I think it’s really important to establish a relationship with a patient that is based off of trust and honesty, and that is something that I’ve been incredibly grateful to have with all my doctors and nurses.”
Since the team at Athletes Fighting Cancer was introduced to Niki, we’ve been in awe of her optimism, selflessness, kind spirit, and relentless determination, especially given all she has gone through. Niki is the ultimate thriver and her story will undoubtedly encourage others to thrive. We look forward to continuing to support Niki and are proud of the wonderful person she is!
“I would love to be inspiring to other people,” she said, “especially young kids who are going through it. I want them to realize it’s not an easy road, but if you just keep that positive outlook on life and the situation, you will get through it.”
Photo credit to Penn State Athletics
To read more, check out the featured article from the Penn State news site or Richard Scarcella’s features in the Reading Eagle: