“Positivity is the best medicine.” That is the message that Kutztown Area High School government teacher Chris Schumacher sees looking back at him in a sea of pink wristbands on his students’ raised hands.
The saying is all over the high school, printed on wristbands to show support for recent graduate Niki Nolte, a Division I swimmer, accomplished musician, and social butterfly. As of Aug. 24, 2017, she is also a cancer survivor. And now, she’s fighting the disease all over again.
“My official diagnosis is acute lymphoblastic leukemia,” said Nolte, a Pennsylvania State University freshman. “It is a blood cancer, specifically affecting white blood cells.”
Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is a cancer that attacks the body through causing bone marrow to produce too many immature lymphocytes. These cells struggle to fight infection, and the heightened number of them in the bloodstream leaves less space for healthy red and white blood cells.
“My first cancer diagnosis was primary mediastinal large B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” said Nolte, “My second cancer, the ALL, is a direct result of my first cancer’s chemotherapy treatment.”
Nolte’s first diagnosis came on April 2, 2017, in the midst of her junior year of high school. She had been struggling with chest pain and troubled breathing, which would turn out to be symptoms of her cancer.
Emma Kyle, a high school friend who is also in attendance at Penn State, was one of Nolte’s first friends to hear of the diagnosis. Getting the news is still a fresh memory in her mind.
“I just remember being in shock and not being able to stop hysterically crying. And I remember thinking, ‘There’s no way that this is happening to Niki. She’s the most athletic and physically fit person, how could this happen?’”
After such an experience, it’s easy to imagine that Nolte’s life would be filled with immense changes in every area. But according to Kyle, it’s what hasn’t changed that is most remarkable.
“Niki still sends me a daily Snapchat with a smile and is always excited to text or FaceTime and just talk like any two best friends would,” she said. “At the end of the day, the only difference I really see is a new hairstyle.”
Another high school friend, Julia Mace, now a freshman at West Chester University, could often be seen walking Kutztown’s halls alongside Kyle and Nolte. Mace explained that Nolte’s attitude has been another factor that has not undergone any changes.
“[Niki’s] catchphrase during our junior year of high school was ‘This is fine!’, and no matter what the situation was, she was always the one going ‘We got this! We’re going to do this!’, and even through treatment, she’s kept that attitude, that fighting spirit,” said Mace.
Since her junior year, Nolte has now developed a new catchphrase: the one seen on the pink wristbands. The sentiment actually stemmed from Nolte feeling the opposite of positive.
“When I was first diagnosed, I was in a state of denial, but I didn’t want the situation to affect who I am. I honestly don’t remember how it started, but one day I started saying ‘Positivity is the best medicine’ because life is too short to experience it with a down mentality,” said Nolte.
Though it may have started from within, that positive mindset has since been poured into Nolte’s life from all over the country. The #NikiStrong movement is a stream of positive vibes and support that has exploded on social media all over the nation. Originally, the movement was limited to college swim teams who shouted Nolte out on Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms as they posed with signs and banners displaying the message “#NikiStrong”.
As it began to spread, though, other college sports teams began to join in, and even U.S. Olympians, famous actors, and Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff and head coach Sean McVay showed their support for Nolte’s fight through social media.
“When I first started seeing the #NikiStrong movement, I was so excited and thankful, and as it continued to grow, I was just speechless,” said Nolte.
Always looking out for more than just herself, she added that “it has also raised awareness for pediatric cancer, which is unfortunately such a real and common thing that can happen to anyone at any time.”
The outpouring of support can be credited to the tight-knit swimming community that Nolte is a part of. The bond that team members create in high school remains when swimmers attend colleges all over the country.
“Many of us came from different club teams around the country, so many of our friends who we swam with in high school swim for other D1 programs. All we really do is tell them, ‘Hey, there’s a girl on our team, and she’s going through cancer right now. Can you do this hashtag for us and take a photo with your team?’” said Teddy Perelli, a teammate of Nolte’s at Penn State, in a video posted to the Penn State swim team Twitter account.
As Perelli and other members of PSU’s swim team continued passing the word along, schools from all corners of the U.S. began posting using Nolte’s custom hashtag.
“Now that we’re getting bigger teams like Stanford, Kentucky, Stanford, and Texas, with all those teams doing it, their Instagram presence has made other teams do it without even having to ask them,” said Perelli.
Though the support from across the country has been nothing short of incredible, it’s the support from right at home that Nolte cherishes the most.
“My main supporters have been my family, friends, and my nurses and doctors. They have all been checking in on me, whether it’s been over the phone, visiting in the hospital, or sending gifts and cards.”
Nolte’s parents, Karl and Melissa, are both very involved in the Kutztown community, with Karl serving on the Kutztown Area School Board, and Melissa working in the high school as an administrative assistant. They have endlessly supported Niki through her journey.
“My mom stays with me overnight at the hospital and my dad would always come and see me right after he left work. My sister has come home from college to hang out with me and my brother always gives me a laugh when I need it most.”
Her sister, Krystal, is a former graduate of Kutztown High School, and her brother, Blake, is currently attending. The family’s strong connection to the school and greater community has helped to create fundraisers that help defray medical costs and raise awareness. Nolte’s new home, Penn State, has also showered her with support.
“[Penn State] started a GoFundMe to help support my family and I with medical expenses, and my teammates started the #NikiStrong movement, which has skyrocketed,” said Nolte. “I also love seeing Kutztown High be not only supportive of me, but of Anthony Myers as well.”
Myers is the son of Kutztown’s assistant principal, Dr. Edward Myers. Anthony, a student at Berks Catholic High School, was recently diagnosed with cancer, as well, and the community has banded to together to support both Niki and Anthony in their respective battles.
In the weeks since Myers received his diagnosis, Kutztown has slightly adapted their hashtag to read as “#Niki17Strong”. The ‘17’ represents Myers’ jersey number on the Berks Catholic football team.
The hashtag has also spread to other places, as Kutztown’s aforementioned government teacher, Chris Schumacher, was the first teacher at the school to bring it into the classroom. In his AP United States Government and Politics class, students all wrote “#NikiStrong” on the chalk board before posing in front of the board for a picture to show their support for Nolte, which has since circulated throughout Twitter. He hopes that the implementation of the hashtag in classrooms spreads to other classes throughout the school.
For Nolte, she doesn’t plan to stop fighting until she beats cancer for a second time. Her perseverance and endless positivity have affected not just herself, but countless others around her, serving as an immense source of hope and inspiration for all.
As Mace put it, “Niki is someone who will never stop fighting, no matter what the odds are. That’s something she’s taught me and still teaches me every day.”