Frantically going through her phone with a sentiment of jubilation swirling in her mind, Nicole Dennion held off the joy for just one moment to send a simple, powerful five-word text message in all capital letters to her teammates:
“MY PET SCAN WAS CLEAR!”
The memo incited utter hysteria from the Elon University women’s soccer team, signifying the triumph of Dennion in her battle with Ewing’s Sarcoma, an aggressive form of cancer that affects the bone and its tissue.
She was diagnosed in February with a treatment plan spanning a year. The text message was sent only five months later in mid-July, and the last two scans have both been clear of any signs of cancer.
“It’s the biggest, best news you could ever ask for,” said Mel Insley, a junior defender for Elon and Dennion’s best friend.
Known as “Colie” to her friends and family, Dennion shredded defenses left and right in fall 2013 for Elon, scoring 15 goals and garnering Southern Conference Player of the Year honors.
She went through January workouts with no issues before doctors discovered a tumor and diagnosed her with cancer, which prompted a return home to New Jersey to receive treatment.
Once that began, her physical shape and health from training allowed doctors to put her on an accelerated treatment program. She received chemotherapy once every two weeks instead of three, had surgery earlier than expected and cut the number of chemo treatments to eight.
Dennion underwent surgery June 4, when doctors made an incision nearly two feet in length stretching down her back and all the way up her side. Three of her ribs were removed and two were reconstructed with titanium. Her right lung collapsed during the process, which prompted another procedure two days later.
She spent seven days in the hospital, going through a number of different respiratory therapies. Just as was the case with her treatment program, Dennion is slated to be discharged from physical therapy early.
Now, Dennion’s receiving chemotherapy treatment every three weeks and has three remaining. She’s working her way back physically, starting to run and lift weights a little bit.
“I was really fortunate,” Dennion said in a phone interview last week. “[The doctors] said I was young and my body was so healthy. It’s still way sooner than expected.”
In the meantime, she’s taking some online classes and even completing an internship with the physical therapist that is treating her.
“I’ve always wanted to do PT,” Dennion said. “After seeing what she does and working with cancer patients, that’s what I really want to do now. It’s awesome to have the opportunity to intern with her.”
Surprises and reminders
It was the first week of the preseason, and Elon head coach Chris Neal, standing at the center of Rudd Field facing the grandstands, was making stuff up. It wasn’t the ordinary post-practice talk. He was facing his team, which was standing in a horizontal line. He just had a few more seconds to kill, so he said some random thoughts on practice and logistical things.
At the same time, Nicole Dennion sat in her car in the parking lot directly behind the team, anxiety flowing through her body. She finally received a text message from Neal saying to “Come up really quietly and try to hide behind the trees.”
Dennion tip-toed her way to the field as Neal announced to his team, “We have a kid who’s going to try out. She’s a transfer. You guys introduce yourselves.”
The team turned around, saw Dennion, and rushed her with unmatched happiness and surprise.
“I was so excited to see her,” said Insley, who hadn’t seen Dennion in more than a month. “It was a reminder of exactly why we’re out here, how lucky we are to have this, how lucky we are to have a teammate like her that randomly surprises us.”
Neal was the only one who knew Dennion was going to be there. The day before, Dennion had been texting sophomore goalkeeper Taylor Mohr and had to lie and say she wasn’t sure when she would be able to make it down to Elon for a visit.
“It was so hard to keep it from Mel and Taylor,” Dennion said. “I had to keep my mouth shut, but I did it.”
The moment served as the first of what Insley calls “reminders” of Dennion and why the team is playing the game.
The team now sports purple tape around their wrists during games that read “NKD 22,” Dennion’s initials and jersey number. Many players write special messages on the tape like “Remember why we started” and “Don’t stop until you’re proud.”
Before each game, the players stand in a circle, put their arms around each other and take a moment to think of how lucky they are to be playing.
At the same time, Dennion is glued to her computer screen watching either the live stream or the live stats of Elon’s game.
“She’s definitely still a part of this team even though she’s not physically here right now,” Insley said.
A gracious community
Mel Insley was preparing for Elon’s home game against Clemson University Aug. 29 when someone came up to her and said that some Clemson players were going to give her something.
“I’m like, ‘What? I don’t even know anyone on Clemson. What’s going on?’” Insley said.
Clemson presented Insley and Elon with a No. 22 signed Clemson jersey with the name “Colie” on the back of it in honor of Dennion.No one knew that was going to happen, similar to the countless other acts of kindness by other teams to support Dennion. Schools such as High Point University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Liberty University have all donated and worn tape with her initials on it. Towson University, an opponent of Elon’s in the Colonial Athletic Association, just announced a season-long fundraiser to raise donations for Dennion and her family.
Every team at Virginia Tech sent Dennion a card, and the men’s soccer team even sent her a signed jersey.
“It reinforces that we’re around good people,” Neal said. “There’s a deep sense of networking and camaraderie amongst the coaches. We try to support each other whenever possible. The soccer community has stepped up big-time.”
Shortly after Dennion’s diagnosis, Neal set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for her and her mother. He put an initial goal of $20,000, which was surpassed within a week. The goal has been reset and broken a total of four times, and the amount raised from the site is currently $37,023.
“I can’t say enough about how much that initial support from everybody, specifically the financial support, and the social media stuff and what people were doing at games with teams,” Neal said. “All of that was an incredible, positive distraction for her and her mother in the first few months. I can’t thank everybody enough, and I know Nicole feels the same way.”
Elon sold t-shirts with the phrase “Never Back Down” emblazoned on the front, along with hosting a number of other fundraising events in the spring.
To this day, Insley gets goose bumps up and down her arms and legs thinking about the support Dennion and the team have received.
“It’s always just a nice little reminder about society and the people in it,” Insley said, “how amazing they are and how willing they are to support a young girl fighting cancer.”
Saying thank you
Dennion keeps a soccer ball in her room and juggles it around daily. The game she’s been playing since she was young is on her mind all the time.
She plans to be back at Elon in February for the start of the spring semester. If everything stays on schedule, she’ll complete her final chemo treatment Dec. 10.Through the process, Insley said Dennion’s attitude has never wavered.
“She radiates on you this optimistic, positive energy,” Insley said. “I have been impressed with her strength through this whole battle. She’s still that fiery Jersey girl.”
The support from Elon and the other schools has left Dennion humbled, shocked and blessed all at the same time, she said. It’s something she carries with her on a daily basis when she’s going through treatments and therapy.
“All I can say is it’s amazing,” Dennion said. “The support has been outpouring. I still can’t believe to this day so many people and teams have given me this support.”
She’s been a warrior and an inspiration to her teammates from the onset, inspiring the shower of donations and special moments. If Dennion was able to speak to her donors, many of whom she’s never met, it wouldn’t be an exclamation in all-capital letters through text.
Instead, it’d be a simple, yet deep, message from the heart:
“You don’t know how much it means to me, having all these people support me, sending me messages. It gives me my strength and will to keep going. It really means so much.”