Best friends and Robbinsville natives Megan Roeloffs (top) and Nicole Colonna (bottom) completed a relay run from Portland, Maine to New York City in June.

I’m a Robbinsville High School 2013 alum, and many of my classmates have spent the past year hitting life milestones—graduating college, landing a full-time job, getting engaged.

The last year has been unforgettable for me, too. This May, I graduated from Rowan University with a bachelor’s in English, and I will be working for Yelp in New York City starting this month. But there’s something else that has made the 2016-2017 school year unlike any other I’ve had.

In August 2016, at just 21 years old, I was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer. Obviously, the diagnosis came as a shock initially to me, my family and my friends. While thyroid cancer has an excellent prognosis, any survivor or caregiver endures pain throughout the process—there is no avoiding that. In November, I had surgery to remove my thyroid completely, which was a long, difficult and ultimately successful surgery.

Unfortunately, my parathyroid glands couldn’t be completely saved, so my surgeon has to re-implant parts of them back into my neck. Due to this complication, I’m vitamin D and calcium deficient, and I’m patiently waiting for my newly implanted parathyroid glands to kick in so I can stop taking so many calcium and vitamin D supplements daily. As of right now, I’m scheduled for a full body scan in October, which will determine if I need the radioactive iodine treatment or not. Fingers crossed I’m in the clear!

After my diagnosis, I found the Christine B. Foundation on in September 2016. CBF was founded in 2014 by Matt Dexter in honor of his mother, Christine, who died after a battle with stomach cancer. The foundation works to find well-suited care for cancer patients and their families. I applied to be its social media manager and blogger, and was graciously offered the position.

From there, I became close with Matt Dexter, who now is the CEO and president of the foundation. Dexter got me excited about CBF’s Eastern Trek for Cancer program, which is a 300-plus-mile relay run from Maine to NYC. During the trek, young adults directly impact and connect the cancer community through giving out comfort bags to cancer patients, awarding a scholarship to a college student affected by cancer, and running 8-11 miles a day. Although I’m not the most athletic person out there, I was up for the personal challenge, and wanted to continue to heal myself and help heal others, while giving back to a community I had become a part of. So, I applied and was accepted.

My best friend, Megan Roeloffs, also applied and was accepted. We’ve been best friends since 5th grade when we met at Pond Road Middle School. Meg was a member of the RHS field hockey team, and, like me, was an active member of the drama department. We graduated from RHS together in June 2013.

Megan is at studying at Montclair State University completing her master’s degree in teaching K-6, as well as teaching kids with special needs, and plans to graduate spring 2018. This past February, she became engaged to her high school sweetheart, Andrew Gart; they will be marrying in April 2019. As I said, it’s been a big year.

Meg dedicated herself to doing the trek with me the day after I told her I was doing it; she didn’t even hesitate.

“Nicole is my best friend, and when she said she was going to do this race I knew I wanted to be by her side through the whole process,” she said. “The minute she told me, I filled out my application and hoped for the best. I am so unbelievably happy I got chosen as one of the 13 runners.

“The whole week was a rollercoaster of emotions, but it was so refreshing and exciting all at the same time. Although running made up most of our day the best part was when we got to meet members of the cancer community. Everyone from staff and directors, to patients all had unique and amazing stories that touched all of us to the core. This experience was something that gave me a new appreciation for life, giving and connecting to others. It is something I will never forget.”

I finished this amazing journey by running up Pier 45 holding my best friend’s hand, tears streaming down both of our faces.

Each runner was required to fundraise a minimum of $2,000, which Meg and I were able to successfully reach and surpass. This year, the team raised $36,000, surpassing our $28,000 goal. Funds go to support the foundation’s social, financial and educational programs for cancer patients and caregivers, including the scholarship.

The relay run began on June 18 in Portland, Maine, and we finished on June 24 in Manhattan, NYC. Our ETC team was made up of runners between the ages of 18 and 26 from across the Eastern United States, from Pennsylvania to Maine. We ran in pairs, covering a handful of miles at a time.

Each day we ran with a new trekker, but my favorite day running was the day I ran with Meg. Not only was it emotional for both of us, but she’s a fantastic motivator, which makes sense—she was a field hockey captain for a reason. I’m not the fastest runner out there, and she was extremely understanding of that. For all of us trekkers, it wasn’t about how quickly we could run, it was about the journey we were taking as a team to make a difference within the cancer community.

Aside from running, Meg and I were able to stay with gracious hosts who welcomed us with hot meals and open arms. We made dinner for the residents of the Ronald McDonald House in Springfield, Massachusetts. We awarded 19-year-old brain cancer survivor Lexi Williams a scholarship; she’s an amazing woman who created cookbook for kids fighting cancer. We also gave out more than 75 comfort bags to cancer patients, and were able to talk to and connect with them.

In one day, Meg and I met a patient diagnosed that day, as well as a patient leaving the hospital for hospice. Although these two patients were at completely different parts of their journey with cancer, we were able to speak with them and make them both smile and laugh. It’s amazing to think how a seemingly small act of kindness can reach people in such a big way, and it truly left a lasting impression.

On June 24, I finished this amazing journey by running up Pier 45 holding my best friend’s hand, tears streaming down both of our faces. I’ll never forget that moment as long as I live. As I hugged my teammates and took one last picture with them, I was proud of the impact we had on the cancer community, each other, and ultimately, ourselves. I’m so grateful to say that I am and always will be part of the CBF and ETC, and I’m excited to see how the foundation and trek will grow in the years to come.

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