Nicole Dennion Using Soccer Fearlessness To Win Against Cancer
Nicole Dennion sounded almost sheepish as she admitted she had watched the highlight only a few days earlier.
Sheepish but still proud.
The highlight in question was one of her favorites from the 2013 season, a campaign in which Dennion, then only a sophomore at Elon University, was recognized as the Southern Conference player of the year. She totaled 15 goals and six assists in 22 games and led the Phoenix to within a win of what would have been just the program's second appearance in the NCAA tournament. So there were more than a few memorable moments, but one from a regular-season game at Davidson stuck with her as perhaps the best of the bunch.
The echo of the referee's whistle to begin the game barely silenced, she got the ball near midfield, raced down the sideline and scored. It took all of 19 seconds. There was no assist. It was a goal scorer doing what goal scorers do. Dennion doing what she had always done, from the time the adults running the show had to bench her in a peewee game because she had scored too many times.
"Soccer is literally my life," Dennion said. "I think about soccer every day of my life."
It might sound frivolous to suggest a game is what she lives for. Yet she earned the right to choose those words.
"We told her early on she's got an opportunity to write an incredible story here," Elon coach Chris Neal said. "She basically is writing it every day that she wakes up."
A lot has changed since that encounter with Davidson almost exactly a year ago. For one thing, Elon is no longer in the Southern Conference, instead struggling through its first season in the Colonial Athletic Association, one of the best mid-major soccer leagues in the country. But that isn't why Dennion won't repeat as a conference player of the year. While her teammates practice and play in Elon, North Carolina, a small town between Greensboro and the triangle formed by Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, she is home in New Jersey watching games, or old highlights, on her computer.
Dennion was diagnosed in January with Ewing's sarcoma, a form of bone cancer that most often occurs in children and young adults. Home ever since for treatment that has included surgery to remove the tumor and round after round of chemotherapy, she counts down the days until life, so to speak, resumes.
She keeps the tally on a whiteboard in her room, each day changing the last digit.
It isn't a count of the days until her next doctor's appointment. It isn't the days since an August scan showed no signs of cancer. It isn't the days until graduation, for which she remains on track to walk with her class after juggling chemotherapy, online classes and even an internship with a cancer therapist.
It is the days until the start of soccer preseason next summer.
She plans on being there. Anyone who wants to tell her otherwise, wants to counsel her to begin some other chapter in her life, might as well save the air.
"I'm a coach, she's the conference player of the year, so I'd be an idiot not to want her back on the field," Neal said. "There's no doubt in my mind that she will see the field again. She's just got an incredible internal passion and fire to play the game.
"Lord help the team she gets reintroduced to."
It didn't take long for Neal to see the talent Dennion had to play the game when he recruited her (he was aided perhaps by a back injury that prevented her from putting her best foot forward during the key recruiting showcases during her junior year of high school and placed her in the mid-major sphere). The rest came with a learning curve. She was diagnosed with mono early in the fall of her freshman year and missed about a month of practice. The coach struggled to get more than one-word responses to questions when she returned. It wasn't until after that season that the real Dennion emerged.
"She's fiery, very opinionated and not scared to let people know what she thinks," Neal said. "She's got a goal scorer's mentality on and off the field, you know what I mean? Goal scorers are never typically quiet, reserved people on the inside. She was very, very confident, not scared of conflict, so to speak, and very, very competitive. Hyper-competitive internally. I don't need to say anything to her to get her motivated to play a soccer game."
Yet the best way she could explain her success that season was to talk about her earliest memories on the soccer field, those days when she scored so often she had to sit down to give everyone else a chance.
I'm a coach, she's the conference player of the year, so I'd be an idiot not to want her back on the field. There's no doubt in my mind that she will see the field again. She's just got an incredible internal passion and fire to play the game.Elon coach Chris Neal on Nicole Dennion
"You're just playing to have fun," Dennion said of starting out in the sport. "You're a kid, and you're out on the field and you just want to play because you want to. There's no competition, and it's just all fun."
That was how the game felt again a season ago. Just fun.
With the move to an even more competitive conference on the horizon last winter, she set her sights on training still harder in the offseason. She wanted to be fitter, faster, stronger because she wanted to be an All-American, just as she embraced the challenge when Neal told her she was good enough to be the best player in the conference.
"She was as good as we had ever seen her," Neal said of Dennion's fitness that winter.
But around the end of December, Dennion started to feel like she had strained a muscle near her ribs. It wasn't constant pain, just a twinge once or twice a week. There was little reason to think it was serious. After an unrelated collision during a game near the end of the previous season, she underwent a precautionary X-ray. It gave no hint at that time that she was anything but a perfectly healthy college athlete. Still, by the end of January, even skipping a couple of weeks of weight lifting hadn't gotten rid of the pain in her ribs. And now there was a bump in the same area -- not a massive protrusion, but still a bump she could not explain.
The team doctor told her it might be something like a fractured rib, a punctured lung or a muscle strain and sent her for another X-ray. Then the radiologist wanted to follow up, which she thought was unusual. He showed her the clear X-ray from November and the one from that day. The new one looked cloudy near her lungs.
When the team doctor then instructed her to go for a CT scan that same day, Dennion balked. She had a physics class that evening and had already missed time because of soccer workouts. She needed to go to class. The doctor overruled her. This couldn't wait.
She woke up that Monday morning thinking she had a persistent muscle strain. She also thought she had practice that evening at 7. Instead, at about the same time as practice that night, she sat with the soccer team's athletic trainer and listened to the doctor tell her there was a mass in her chest and she needed to see an oncologist the next morning.
Yet even as she sat in the thoracic oncologist's office, even after he began explaining the situation, she struggled to process what he was saying. She was an athlete in what seemed the best shape of her life. The two realities hardly seemed compatible.
"The word 'cancer' never even crossed my mind," Dennion said. "I mean, it did, but I never thought that I could have it. I had a mass, and I can go get this removed and I'll be fine."
Instead she left Elon, returned to New Jersey and began a lengthy treatment program. Even when she responded well enough to radiation and surgery to be put on an accelerated treatment plan, it still meant seven months of being in and out of the hospital -- in for three days of chemotherapy, then out for two weeks, then in for six more days of chemotherapy and on and on in a wearying cycle. Instead of a soccer ball at her feet, she had an IV stand.
"I don't even know how to explain the feeling of sickness that you go through sitting in the hospital," Dennion said. "You feel so tired, you feel nauseous, you can't eat. It's just a combination of everything."
Soccer might seem close to meaningless amid such circumstances. Probably because, on some level, it is. When Dennion underwent surgery in June to remove the tumor, the surgeon warned her that the procedure, which involved the removal of three ribs, might make a return to the soccer field difficult. From the outside looking in, what mattered was her return to health, not her return to scoring goals. If she lives a long life and never plays again, she still wins. But from the inside, for the person whose world has just been turned upside down, soccer is the lighthouse in a storm.
Older than his sister by five years, Joe Dennion was the person she followed around soccer fields before she started playing. Like most siblings, they get in each other's way and on each other's nerves from time to time. They don't spend a lot of time talking to each other about emotions and feelings. But he could also see beneath the bravado to the person who was scared.
"When I saw her for the first time when she got back, I'm the one who burst into tears," Joe said. "I think she doesn't want to really show me that side -- I think her and my mother really did all their crying together. But yes, I've seen [the fear]. She doesn't try and let that on to me, but I know it's there."
Soccer was, and is, something she could hold on to against that.
In Joe's words, they hope what they see now is the light at the end of the tunnel. The scan in August was clear and Nicole is already running -- albeit not all that far, by her own admission. The number on the whiteboard gets smaller by the day.
A lot has changed in the year since she scored that early goal against Davidson. She has changed, in ways far more profound than the physical absence of one rib that couldn't be replaced by a titanium stand-in. But in that highlight is also a glimpse of what she can be again.
"When I physically look at myself ..." Nicole began, only to stop as the words and emotions choked her. "That's probably one of the things I've struggled with the most because I look back on pictures of myself and I'm like, 'That doesn't look like me.' I don't have hair, I don't have eyebrows, I don't have eyelashes. But it's one of the things that I've learned so much -- that doesn't mean anything.
"Yeah, that might not look like me, but it is me."
She is a soccer player.