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Fort Cherry senior gives lesson in making the best of a bad situation

October 13, 2017 GMT

Cancer is no laughing matter - unless you are Nicole Stewart.“I was a big fan of cancer jokes about me,” she said. “We had homecoming (Sept. 29) and someone said, ‘You have cancer. Make a request. They’ll play any song you want.‘“I tell bad jokes all the time. The more I tell bad jokes, the more everyone appreciates good ones.“The first half of 2017 was a horrifically bad joke to Stewart, but one she characteristically laughs off today. In January, halfway through her junior year at Fort Cherry High School, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system. Four months of chemotherapy, precautions and fears followed, accompanied by this mystery for which no one has an answer: Why does this happen to a kid?Stewart, an effervescent 17-year-old with a smile that radiates, wasn’t overly concerned, though. “I think there’s a 95 percent survival rate.“Now she has raised that rate a bit. Stewart has flogged cancer’s fanny, having been declared in remission since mid-May. She is, again, a prominent presence on the school scene.Now a senior, she hasn’t missed a day since classes resumed Aug. 28. She is back as majorette co-captain, to working more than one job and participating in dance classes, and is planning to be a shot putter next track season.And speaking of plans … she aspires to be a nurse and has applied to the nursing program at Clarion University of Pennsylvania.“I’m not good with needles, though,” Stewart said, laughing. “I want to take care of babies (in delivery or a neonatal unit). I didn’t understand the importance of nursing until I had to deal with a nurse.“Seated for an interview outside the high school gym last week, mother Donna to her left, Stewart spoke freely about her medical experiences. She was interrupted a few times by well-wishing students and teachers, once by a fellow majorette who waved vigorously.Stewart said she didn’t have much discomfort, other than following her first chemo treatment in January and the last one in May.“My knees felt like swords were stabbing them those times, but the ‘Oreo’ wasn’t a problem,” she said, referring to treatments in between.Because her condition left her susceptible to other illnesses, Stewart did not attend classes from Jan. 3 through the end of the academic year. She did, however, make a notable appearance at Fort Cherry in early February: singing the national anthem with the school chorus before the Rangers hosted Chartiers-Houston in boys basketball. The game also served as a fundraiser for her.Missing classes was not easy for a National Honor Society student who puts the “active” in student activities. But, for the most part, the disease did not get her down, and actually served as chicken soup for her soul.“Before I had this, I don’t think I appreciated things as much. I then did everything to feel alive. The first thing I did after my diagnosis was get a second job,” said Stewart, who works at a pizza shop and a Subway and has applied for a third position, a seasonal gig for the holidays.During her recovery, Stewart served some of that chicken soup to others, sharing her health experiences with two other Hodgkin’s patients in her age range. One was a woman a few years older on Instagram, the other a girl in another Southwestern Pennsylvania school district.Months before her diagnosis, Stewart was cruelly reminded of how fragile life can be. A friend, Faith Dowler, 16, of North Strabane Township, was one of three people killed in the crash of a minivan on Interstate 79 near Bridgeport, W.Va., in September 2016. They were heading for a festival of Christian outreach services.“We met in a youth group,” Stewart said, displaying a tattoo of “Faith” on her left arm. “I got this in August. … I didn’t tell my doctors.“Physically and emotionally, it has been a lengthy healing process for Stewart, but she has had a devoted ally all along - her mother. “I told her, ‘Do what you have to do and get it done, and I’ll be beside you,’” said Donna Stewart, who also has a son.Her daughter appears to have gotten it done. A confessed Mexican food freak, Stewart likewise has been nourished by the food for thought life has served her. She said she feels well on all counts.“When I look back,” she said, “it seems like everything was fake. ‘This happened to me?’“I don’t think I had as terrible a time as others do.”