When she was 20 years old, Nicole Langlois bought an assortment of wigs — red, brunette, short and long.
She did so after shaving her head when her hair started to fall out during chemotherapy for stage IV metastatic breast cancer.
Shaving her head, by comparison, was easy. The University of Maine fifth-year senior has also undergone chemotherapy with a drug nicknamed Red Devil, a double mastectomy four days before Christmas in 2011 and breast reconstruction.
And the kinesiology major has handled it all while taking classes and being a member of the Black Bears swim team.
Optimism and humor have been key. “I used to match my hair with my outfits,” she says.
Langlois says making jokes and being candid have helped her to not only survive, but to thrive. For instance, she proudly sports a T-shirt with the message: Yes They’re Fake! The Real Ones Tried To Kill Me.
“Throughout the diagnosis and chemotherapy I knew I was going to be OK,” says Langlois, who grew up in Washington, D.C. “I’ve always had a sense of humor about it.”
Langlois isn’t fazed by the less-than-favorable survival rate of people who battle stage IV metastatic breast cancer. And she has no time or patience for skeptics; she switched hospitals after inquiring about having children one day and being told by a physician that she wouldn’t live long enough to deal with that.
The freestyle distance swimmer, who placed in the top 25 in three events in the 2010–11 America East Conference Swimming and Diving Championships, exudes energy and resilience.
“I’m stubborn,” she says with a smile. “As soon as my doctors or parents told me I probably shouldn’t do something, I’d go out and do it.”
Which included continuing to train and compete on a Division I swim team.
Her doctors told her she’s one of the youngest women they know who has had breast cancer. From 2002–06, women 20–24 years old had the lowest incidence rate of breast cancer of all age groups, with 1.4 cases per 100,000, according to the American Cancer Society. Those same four years, 61 was the median age at the time of diagnosis.
Langlois discovered a lump in her breast during her sophomore year at UMaine. She had it examined and was told it was an inflammation of a duct.
But it kept growing, and during her junior year, a biopsy of the 7-centimeter growth revealed Langlois had stage IV metastatic cancer — invasive cancer that had spread beyond her breast.
Because it is a hormone-receptor-positive cancer, Langlois takes medication that reduces her estrogen level. She also has regular shots and every three months, she has a scan to make sure she is cancer-free.
Langlois graduates May 11, four days after her 23rd birthday. This summer, while she stays with her parents in D.C., she says she’ll have fun with friends, perhaps wait tables and apply to graduate schools.
Her experience surviving cancer has inspired her to pursue a career as a physician assistant and work in oncology, perhaps pediatric oncology. Langlois says she’ll enjoy all aspects of patient care, including cancer screening, discussing treatment options, counseling and assisting with surgery.
She says it will be rewarding to support other cancer patients like people have supported her.
“My swim team has been like a second family,” Langlois says, adding teammates shaved their heads when she shaved hers, stayed by her side during chemotherapy and helped raise funds for cancer research.