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Washington Voices

Reaching for mountaintops

Thu., June 4, 2009

Nicole Esmay has battled illness, loss

When 18-year-old Nicole Esmay was younger, she thought she’d probably scale Mount Everest one day.

The North Central senior loved to rock climb and spent hours improving her skills at an indoor climbing gym in Spokane. But at age 13, her body began holding her back. She started coming down with strep throat on a regular basis and experienced symptoms of fibromyalgia, marked by fatigue and widespread pain.

“I went through so many doctors, maybe 15,” said Esmay. “I was misdiagnosed a few times.” She waited three months to see one highly-regarded specialist, only to have him tell her it was all in her head. Then, last October, Esmay was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. “My mom and I just kept trying and trying and finally they caught the cancer.”

When she was diagnosed, Esmay’s older brother Shane had been battling colon cancer for nearly a year. “It kind of runs in our family,” she said of the disease.

Esmay would regularly drive her brother to his radiation treatments, an experience that brought them closer together and taught her how to make it through her own battle. “He had such a cool sense of humor,” she said. “It died down after he was diagnosed, but it was still there.”

The two would often goof off and recite movie quotes to each other, but as treatments progressed he became more serious. “There were a lot of life talks,” said Esmay, during which her brother would tell her to always speak up for herself and to learn from his mistakes. “I think he was always afraid he wouldn’t be there for me,” she said.

While he was home visiting one day last February, Shane slipped into a coma and died. “He’d just turned 36 and then 10 days later he passed away,” said Esmay.

“It’s been extremely difficult for her, but she finds strength in her brother,” said Melissa Pettey, Esmay’s high school counselor and friend since freshman year. “She feels she’s on this earth for a purpose.”

Following numerous treatments, including having her thyroid removed and ingesting a radioactive iodine pill, Esmay was recently told she was cancer-free.

While her health is starting to rebound, Esmay still fights fatigue and gets worn down easily by stress. “I had some major goals but they’ve changed,” she said.

Esmay said she’s decided to turn from physical ambitions to creative pursuits, and is now considering a career in photojournalism after taking a photography course recently. One of the ways she relieves stress is by snapping shots of graffiti and broken down buildings around Spokane. “I like the freedom you have with telling stories with pictures,” she said.

Since her freshman year, Esmay has also been active as a percussionist in her high school band. While many of her friends are also in percussion, she said she spends a lot of her time these days hanging out with her niece, Shane’s 13-year-old daughter Kelsi, who’s talked about starting a band with Esmay on drums.

Despite the loss of her brother and after her own bout with cancer, Esmay has managed to maintain a 3.8 g.p.a. and plans to attend Eastern Washington University next fall, where she received a presidential scholarship for $2,000.

“It’s been hard, for sure, but I see this as a stepstone to bigger things I’ll probably face in my life,” she said. And with a resolve as strong as hers, Esmay might just make it to the top of Everest after all.

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