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Nicole Benedetto Houlihan (middle) poses for a photo with her brother, Joe, and mother, Kim, Benedetto. Photo submitted
Sean Hastings, Contributing Editor
3:50 am CST January 15, 2020

Frankfort native Nicole Benedetto Houlihan married her high school sweetheart, Pete, in May 2019. The two were 2010 graduates of Providence Catholic High School. 

It was supposed to be the greatest year of her life with the summer wedding with the one she had been dating for 10 years. But the second half of 2019 took a turn. 

Following a slip and fall on her wedding day, Nicole began to experience pain in her left shoulder. Initially, doctors thought it was a hairline fracture after conducting an MRI in June. But the pain came and went, but was not getting any better in the weeks and months that followed. 

On Nov. 29, she had a repeat MRI that showed a 4.1cm lesion on her acromion bone. And then on Dec. 5, she had a fine needle biopsy done and a few weeks later results came back confirming a malignant round blue cell tumor, meaning it can include many different cancer types and making it tough to diagnose. 

Nicole’s family and friends set up a GoFundMe page to raise funds for the mounting medical bills, but also to pay for egg preservation so she can one day have children, which is a big thing in her mind, her brother, Joe Benedetto said.

As of Jan. 10, she started her fertility preservation process.

“The cost in that is astronomical,” Joe said. “The procedure may be covered through her insurance because of the situation. What costs the most is the preservation of her eggs, because they have to do this freezing process. I’ve been told it can cost $15,000-$20,000 just to store the eggs.”

Nicole received the results of her second incisonal shoulder biopsy on Friday, Jan. 10. The test was done Dec. 20.

The biopsy came back inconclusive, but the pathology from a craniotomy confirmed a Ewing’s sarcoma.

It is a pediatric bone cancer and her doctors are working on a complete plan, which will include chemotherapy, radiation and the possibility of shoulder surgery in the future, Joe wrote on the GoFundME page.

“They [knew it was] cancer, but they [had] no confirmed diagnosis,” Joe said on Thursday, Jan. 9. “And for them to start any chemotherapy or radiation, they have to have a diagnosis.” 

In waiting for the results of the second incisional biopsy, Nicole underwent more MRIs, CT scans, a bone scan and a PET scan. 

The PET scan of her entire body was done to find any possible tumorous areas. Doctors found three — the one on her shoulder, one on her tonsils, and on the outermost layer of the brain.

In finding the spot on her head, Joe said the doctors told them it is something they see in older adults all the time, and unless one has a cancer diagnosed already, they can’t recognize it. Since she did not have a confirmed diagnosis from her second biopsy, surgery was not an option at that point.

But in the days following the scan, she developed headaches, nausea, vomiting and facial swelling. Another MRI confirmed that the abnormality on her brain grew by 50 percent since the previous test. 

She underwent the craniotomy with lesion removal on Jan. 2.

“That’s when the doctor said, ‘We have to go in and get this out right now,”’ Joe said. “When she went in to get it removed, the tumor had started to push into and deteriorate her skull. They put an artificial skull where it was cut out to not leave a dent in her head. 

“They had to do the surgery to remove it and take a piece of her skull out and go in and cut that out. She’s still recuperating from that.”

“This has to start taking place soon,” Joe said “Because how fast it grew in her head, it is an aggressive cancer, but in order to start treatment, they need to know what kind of cancer it is to know how to go about what treatment to do first.”

Nicole works as an oncologist, helping patients with cancer every day, so she knows what can happen with any cancer, Joe said. 

“I just want to keep her mindset right and motivating her to be positive,” Joe said. “I try to be around as much as I can and help any way I can.”

Joe has multiple step and half siblings, but Nicole is his only blood-related sibling.

“We have kept the closest relationship you could imagine,” he said. “Through our younger years, then I went away to college and now her living on her own and being married, we talk pretty much every day on a two-times-a-day basis. On the way to work and one in the afternoon.”

Joe said he won’t accept any fact that she wouldn’t beat this. 

The GoFundMe page set up surpassed $60,000 in less than a week. It has raised more than $70,000 as of Monday, Jan. 13.

Joe set it up Tuesday, Jan. 7 went to bed and it already generated over $18,000. 

“This GoFundMe will help financially, but it’s keeping the people around her positive, too,” he said. “My mom is really upset and my dad, we have to be positive and not stressed around her. We want to beat this as fast possible.”

To contribute to the GoFundMe campaign, visit https://www.gofundme.com/f/bent-but-never-broken-nicole039s-cancer-journey