Five months after diagnosis professional triathlete back at start line

This summer a Dayton, Ohio resident and professional athlete celebrates a milestone birthday by getting the news that she is cancer free.

By T.J. Banes, IU Health Senior Journalist,

It was a routine check up.

Nicole “Nickie” Luse was preparing to leave town headed to Hawaii for a couple months of training. The last thing on her mind was breast cancer. But when her gynecologist felt a lump, on that Tuesday in January of 2018, she ordered a mammogram and an ultrasound.

Luse had just turned 38 and was spending her time traveling the country (and out of the country) as a professional triathlete. But on Feb. 1 she learned she had breast cancer. It was through a mutual friend of her coach that she was referred to IU Health Simon Cancer Center and oncologist Dr. Kathy Miller and surgeon Dr. Samilia Obeng-Gyasi (whom she calls “Dr. Sam”). She was also in the care of nurse navigator Meghan McWhirter and physician assistant Betsy Simpson.

“Nickie is a fantastic person. Her whole outlook on this situation was mind blowing. She was an advocate for herself from the very beginning of this process and because of that I was able to meet one of the most amazing people that I have ever met,” said McWhirter. “Nickie was never afraid to speak up and ask questions and I applaud that. I want patients to take an active role in their care and Nickie did just that. I am very thankful to have had a small part in this journey with her.”

On March 12 – a month after her diagnosis – she received a bilateral mastectomy at IU Health West.

“Most people in my situation wouldn’t have opted for this surgery. But given my lifestyle as an active athlete, I thought it was the best option,” said Luse. Months of physical therapy followed when she developed axillary web syndrome (AWS). Also known as “cording” the condition sometimes develops as a side effect to sentinel lymph node biopsy. “I guess because I have a small frame, it’s a condition that developed where basically it decreased my arm movement and I could feel a pull,” said Luse.

Raised in Dayton, Ohio, Luse focused her athletic skills on soccer from the age of Kindergarten. Her dad, Charlie was one of her early coaches. Her mother fought pancreatic cancer for 22 months and died in 2015. Her paternal grandmother also had pancreatic cancer. Lucas has one sister Megan Fokerth who went with her to every appointment.

With no family history of breast cancer they decided to go through genetic testing. The tests came out negative and Luse moved forward saying “it was just a flip of the coin.”

In college at the University of Cincinnati she pursued a degree in nursing and played on the college women’s soccer team. After working for some time in ICU and ER, she began working in a running store.

“I started running as an amateur athlete and eventually qualified for a race as a professional athlete,” said Luse. She’s now in her fifth season of triathlons – swimming, biking, and running. Last year she raced in New Zealand and has also raced in Puerto Rico but the majority of her competitions are in the east and west.

“I love competing and pushing my body and I love the people I meet,” said Luse. “And to think – I got connected to IU Health through racing.” After surgery she exercised moderately – walking to the car, the mailbox and then around the block.

“Five months to the date of surgery I was back the start line,” said Luse, who is now cancer free. “I can’t say enough about the team approach my nurse navigator, physician assistant, and doctors. They were awesome,” said Luse. “Dr. Miller smiles, shakes your hand and the energy in the room changes. She brings calmness, and Dr. Sam was very mater of fact and explained things methodically. I am very thankful I chose IU Health.”