Competing with cancer

September 11, 2015

JCCC runner Katie Nelson battles melanoma to come back to track

Imagine traveling with teammates on your way to compete in a championship meet and you find out you have cancer. That is the reality that Katie Nelson, a sophomore on JCCC’s women’s cross country and track team, faced last fall. 

Nelson’s 2014 cross country season ended abruptly that afternoon on the bus when she learned she was diagnosed with myxoid melanoma, an uncommon form of melanoma that is often misdiagnosed. Her reaction was understandable.

“I freaked out and starting crying,” Nelson said.

Finding out

Early in the cross-country season, Nelson had a mole removed from her right arm and her doctor had it screened. Most moles are benign (non-cancerous), but the first two preliminary tests were not able to determine if it was benign or melanoma. The screen was sent to a laboratory in San Francisco where a genomic test was performed and confirmed she had cancer.

A few weeks later, Nelson had surgery to remove the cancer.  The incision had to be long and deep to make sure all the cells were removed. Her sentinel nodes were also removed to check if the cancer had spread.

“After surgery it was nerve-racking because they weren’t sure they got it all,” Nelson said. “It was early January when I found out it was all gone.”

The road back

Now cancer free, Nelson wanted to get back to doing what she did best – compete – but it was rough early in her return because she was so out of shape. Her arm would swell with fluid, too, causing discomfort and pain, and her scar would turn dark.

“Coach (Tom) Lester didn’t really care it hurt, he just kept saying, ‘Keep pushing it, Nelson,’” she said.

Head coach Mike Bloemker said he was actually hesitant to let her try to return, but she talked him into it.

“I have been coaching for 20 years, and nothing like this has every happened,” said Bloemker. “I just tried to be as supportive as I could.”

Nelson’s hard work and determination helped her regain her competitive edge running, and during the indoor season she ran the final leg on the region champion 4x800 relay and earned NJCAA Indoor Coaches All-American in the 4x800 and distance medley relays.

Seven months after her diagnosis, Nelson completed her collegiate career by racing in the 1,500-meter run at the NJCAA Outdoor Championships in Hutchinson, Kansas.  She placed 15th overall, two spots better than her freshman year at nationals. In her two seasons at Johnson County, she garnered nine all-conference and five all-region honors, and was a three-time NJCAA Coaches All-American.

A new outlook

Now that she has survived cancer, Nelson admits she has changed and has a more positive outlook on life.

“I wear sunscreen now,” she said. “I was also selfish before, but now I don’t have an attitude, and I listen a lot more to people. It also brought me a lot closer to my dad.”

Bloemker agreed with Nelson’s assessment.

“She has definitely changed – she is more positive and mature,” he said.