Seth Nuckolls is 28 years old, which marks a halfway point in his life: He’s spent an equal number of years oblivious to cancer and as a cancer survivor. Diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma at 14, Seth sees the positives and negatives of dealing with a life-altering diagnosis as a young man.
In a matter of months, Seth went from an idyllic childhood full of biking, rope swinging and other “awesome boy things” with his junior high buddies to being trapped in a hospital room for nearly a year. The once active, athletic kid received many rounds of chemotherapy and radiation to treat his bone cancer. Seth had to learn to walk again after a titanium implant replaced his diseased right pelvis.
Throughout high school, he endured a lot of pain just walking and felt weather changes in his joints. Despite the doctors’ prognosis that his physical activities would be limited, Seth now runs. “I’ve figured out that side-to-side motion like in tennis or soccer is not so good, but as long as I’m running straight, I can run for as long as I want and it doesn’t hurt,” he said. “It’s been amazing.” He also enjoys world travel, hiking and camping with friends, and sailing, often crewing for races on Washington state’s Bellingham Bay.
For the first years after remission, Seth had frequent follow-up visits with his medical team. “That was really tough. My heart was in my throat every time. I was terrified I’d have to go back to the hospital,” he said.
Now he looks forward to annual visits to the Survivorship Clinic at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. “It gives me peace of mind. I want to make sure I’m talking with the top health care providers who can help me keep up on the potential long-term effects of the chemotherapy and who are attuned to the possibility of recurrence or secondary cancers, especially since I’m in a window of time where I could potentially get leukemia from the chemo,” he said. “I’ve had the lifetime [maximum] dose of some medications, so they take echocardiograms of my heart to make sure everything’s fine.” His bone density and cholesterol levels are also monitored.
Being a teen with cancer set Seth apart from his peers. “Having a brush with death kept me focused on small things, simple pleasures and finding joy each day. I felt driven to make each day awesome. I had plenty of time in the hospital to think of what I wanted to do in life,” he said. “In some ways, I got pulled way ahead of my age. I could interact better with adults. I had to learn to be a kid again. A large part of my life has been bringing those two worlds back together again.”
While Seth said it was traumatic to quickly lose his identity as a child, having cancer had positive effects, too. “It inspired me to better myself. And it gave me empathy and compassion to walk with people through dark times,” he said.
A mathematics instructor at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., Seth enjoys working with college students. “I hope to inspire them to see real world problems and understand the power of math, the power of thinking. I want them to see maybe there’s more to college than parties and Xbox.”
Seth knows he needs to continue to pay attention to his long-ago diagnosis. “I understand I need to take that part of my life seriously,” he said. “You have to take into account all the factors of your cancer experience and how those will impact your life. Denying their existence isn’t going to make them go away.”
Given the arduous treatment Seth endured at a young age, he takes charge of his current health through exercise and healthy habits. “My body’s already been through the wringer once. I have to treat it really well to help it last longer,” he said.
Though he avoids dwelling on future unknowns, he thinks his lifespan may be shortened by his cancer treatment. “This stuff’s got to take years off your life,” Seth said. He also has uncertainty about how long his pelvic implant will last. “I was the first kid in the nation to have a pelvic resection of this size, so they don’t really know what will happen,” he said.
With the encouragement of the Survivorship Clinic staff, Seth sought counseling in recent years. “For the longest time, I thought I was fine. But there were plenty of signs I probably needed some post-cancer counseling in high school,” he said. “It’s been great now to talk about that time and really process some of the impacts. I’m finally at a place where I can articulate what I went through. When you’re able to walk through some of those dark places again, you’re able to emerge to a place of light and life, beauty and health.”