Continuing the fight

Woodland student, cancer survivor organizing Relay For Life

Woodland Regional High School senior Nicolas Lucas sits in his home in Beacon Falls. Lucas, a cancer survivor, is organizing a Relay For Life at Woodland for his senior project. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

Woodland Regional High School senior Nicolas Lucas sits in his home in Beacon Falls. Lucas, a cancer survivor, is organizing a Relay For Life at Woodland for his senior project. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

BEACON FALLS — In the fall of 2009, Nicolas Lucas was just a few days into his sixth-grade year at Long River Middle School when he literally found himself fighting for his life.

Sitting with her son at the kitchen table in the family’s home in Beacon Falls this month, Seleste Lucas, Nicolas’ mother, recalled the fateful fall of 2009.

Three days into the school year, Nicolas started to feel sick and his stomach hurt, Seleste said. The family doctor advised Seleste that there was a bad stomach virus going around and to keep Nicolas out of school.

A week passed and Nicolas still felt sick. Seleste told Nicolas at the time that he had missed too many days and needed to go back to school, and she would pick him up if he still felt ill.

“He puts a white shirt on, meets me in my bedroom and he’s whiter than the shirt,” Seleste recalled.

Seleste called the doctor, who told her to bring Nicolas in first thing that morning. However, Seleste followed a gut feeling and brought Nicolas to Griffin Hospital in Derby instead. After a few hours being treated at Griffin Hospital, Nicolas was transferred to Yale-New Haven Hospital for further tests and treatment. That night doctors broke the news to Seleste and her husband, Jon. Nicolas had leukemia.

“We were very angry,” Seleste said about her and Jon’s reaction to the news.

Nicolas was diagnosed with two forms of leukemia, acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) and chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML). The latter is rare in children.

Nicolas said he didn’t know how to feel when he learned of his diagnosis. However, he knew he had to fight.

“I just knew I had to be strong and I had to do it,” Nicolas said. “You cannot not be strong during that.”

“Having to tell him is probably the hardest thing I ever had to do in my whole life,” Seleste said. “When he told me he was going to fight and he was going to be strong, I knew then that I had nothing to worry about.”

Fight, Nicolas did.

Now, the 18-year-old senior at Woodland Regional High School is in remission, and has been cancer free for six years. Nicolas, who plays soccer and tennis at Woodland, is seeking to help others in their fight against cancer by organizing a Relay For Life to benefit the American Cancer Society for his senior project. The relay is set for May 21 from 3 p.m. to midnight on the track at Woodland.

“We don’t have big events like that at Woodland,” Nicolas said. “I thought it was a good idea to bring it there to bring everyone together.”

Nicolas’ decision to organize a Relay For Life for his senior project came as a bit of a surprise to his parents, who had no idea what he was planning. Aside from a handful of school staff and some of his classmates, most his fellow students didn’t know that Nicolas is a cancer survivor.

“I didn’t want to be seen as different, treated differently than anybody else,” Nicolas said about not telling people his story.

When he told his mother his plans to organize a relay, she was taken back.

“I said you’re doing what? I said you’ve not told anyone in school yet, and he said, ‘yeah, it’s about time,’” Seleste said.

In February, an assembly was held at the school during which Nicolas brought in speakers to tell his story and explain his senior project. Nicolas was only planning to thank everyone for attending the assembly, but when he got up to speak he didn’t get the chance.

“When I got up to say ‘thank you for coming,’ I didn’t even get to speak, everyone just stood up and started clapping. It was something else,” Nicolas said.

Nicolas’ fight against leukemia was not an easy one. The day after being diagnosed, he underwent three surgeries, including one to install a chemo port in his chest so he could undergo chemo therapy.

Following weeks of treatment, Nicolas was transferred to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston because his CML was too advanced and his only hope for survival was a bone marrow transplant.

This is when the Lucas’ support system kicked in. Family and friends held multiple bone marrow drives and got 1,000 candidates to sign up, Seleste said.

“None of them were a match to Nicolas,” she said.

Nicolas’ match was eventually found on an international registry and came from a donor in France, Seleste said. With the help of an experimental drug, Gleevec, which at the time was only being used in clinical trials on children, Seleste said, Nicolas was able to undergo bone marrow transplant surgery on Feb. 5, 2010. By May 22, 2010, he was in remission.

“When he said he was going to fight, he fought,” Seleste said.

Family and friends rallied around Nicolas and the cause during his fight. While he was in the hospital in 2010, Team Nick was started in his honor. Team Nick is a group of about 50 people, including Nicolas, that have participated in the Relay For Life of Monroe and Trumbull the past five years. Since 2010, Team Nick has raised over $55,000 for the American Cancer Society, Seleste said.

“I have always found when I go it’s always a good time. I’m just hoping people have fun when they go there too,” said Nicolas about the relay he is organizing at Woodland.

The relay at Woodland is open to everyone. There is no registration fee and all the money raised during the event, which will feature raffles and a wellness tent with massage therapy, will go to the American Cancer Society.

Anyone who wants to register for the relay or donate can do so online at relay.acsevents.org. The homepage for the event can be found by searching “Woodland” in the search tab under “sign up for an event.”

Nicolas is hoping to make the relay at Woodland an annual event. He has to find a junior who is willing to be his successor and hold the relay next year as a senior project.

More importantly, Nicolas wants to get a message across to those battling cancer.

“You are not alone. You have everybody behind you,” he said, before adding, “If you’re fighting cancer don’t give up.”