In her last two years of high school, 17-year-old Nicole Graham went from being a tri-varsity athlete to a leukemia patient. Now, as a survivor, she’s taken on yet another role: cancer therapy advocate.
This week, Graham celebrates her high school graduation – and will mark the occasion by volunteering with Swim Across America’s Greenwich, Conn. event, an open water swim in Long Island Sound whose proceeds benefit the Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy (ACGT).
ACGT, which was established in 2001, is the nation’s only non-profit exclusively dedicated to cancer cell and gene therapy treatments for all types of cancer.
“It’s a great way to end my athletic career at Greenwich High School, with a big swim supporting something I love,” said the field hockey, indoor track and lacrosse player.
Graham was diagnosed with B-cell acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) in 2012 – one week into her junior year – after noticing a bruise on her stomach. Because she had just turned 16, she was a “high risk” patient, though doctors said the cancer had an over 90 percent cure rate. Graham immediately began receiving blood and platelet transfusions, then chemotherapy.
But two weeks after her initial diagnosis, she was rushed to the hospital after developing septic shock. Doctors placed her in a medically induced coma for two weeks, during which she had two strokes.
Just before they took her out of the coma, doctors extracted her bone marrow to check for cancer cells and, thankfully, they found that she was in remission, after having only two chemotherapy sessions before the coma.
Though she had conquered cancer, the strokes she had suffered left Graham unable to talk, walk, eat or function normally
“Because of the strokes or the two weeks of immobility [in the coma], my body didn’t know what to do. I had lost 30 pounds and 60 percent of my muscle mass,” Graham said. “My mom called me a ‘rag doll.’”
Graham was transferred to Blythedale Children’s Hospital in Valhalla, New York, where she stayed until early January 2013 and relearned how to talk, walk, eat and function again. Since she was immunosuppressed, Graham finished her junior year by doing coursework at home. She returned to school— and sports— for her senior year and graduates this Thursday, June 19th.
“Before, I had been a tri-varsity athlete, the doctors think that’s the main reason why I was able to recover so fast,” Graham said. “I was also so determined; I’m not going to let this be who I am.”
THE POWER OF GENE THERAPY
Gene therapy, the process of introducing genetic material— usually DNA— to fight an acquired or inherited disease, is on the forefront of cancer research. Through 44 grants, which represent almost $25 million, ACGT and its investigators have been able to show proof of concept for gene therapy in clinical trials for lymphoma and leukemia, and are working on other types of cancer.
“For years and years, nothing much has happened with cancer and now we’re beginning to see some glimmers of hope. It’s really fantastic and not a lot of people know about it and I think it’s important for people to know there is hope, there are clinical trials and they’re looking for people who need them,” Barbara Netter, founder and president of ACGT, told FoxNews.com. “Nicole wanted to work with an organization such as ours to learn more about and have frontline experience in funding of breakthroughs and marquee name oncologists.”
ACGT is one of the main beneficiaries for Swim Across America (SAA). The non-profit aims to fight cancer through swimming, holding 18 open water swims and hundreds of pools swims across the country every year. Since 1987, SAA has raised over $55 million, with funds supporting community nonprofits and research and treatment efforts.
“We tend to look at programs with some amazing potential that just aren’t going to get funding, so no one knows what the outcome will be. ACGT, in areas of genetics, is really on the cutting edge,” Matt Vossler, co-founder of SAA, told FoxNews.com. “Our feeling is that money can have the most impact if we’re actually helping to put things into the market and into humans that are preventative and have curative capabilities.”
SAA: Greenwich, being held Saturday, June 21st, hopes to have 200 swimmers and hit their fundraising goal of $500,000. Many participants and volunteers have had cancer affect their lives in some way, making the event deeply personal.
“[Cancer] is really the common demon,” Vossler said. “We see people still in the battle, so to speak, out there fighting, doing what they can to help others.”
Graham spoke at last year’s Swim Across America: Greenwich event and as an ACGT volunteer, has worked closely with the SAA event coordination efforts.
“Nicole, she’s just tremendous. What’s interesting is the impact she’s made in towns around Greenwich, because of the fact that she’s on the lacrosse team and so visible with other team sports is just amazing,” Vossler said. “What she’s been able to overcome, just personally, with her own health, and what she’s been able to do in the broader space of Fairfield County is really inspiring.”
Graham is now in chemotherapy maintenance mode and has about a year of treatment left. She’ll attend Dartmouth College in the fall and plans to play club lacrosse. As for her future plans, medicine is a possibility, but not in a clinical setting.
“Learning all about [my leukemia] and how science is trying to find a way to see how the body works is so intriguing to me,” Graham said. “Everyone asked me, ‘Do you want to be a doctor?’ I don’t want to set foot in a hospital, but research is something I’m definitely interested in.”