June 15, 2023

Leukemia survivor grateful for bone marrow transplant match

Noelle Nicoara
Noelle Nicoara

In Summer 2018, Noelle Nicoara was studying dance at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee when she noticed she was more tired than usual. She also developed hives on her feet.

Nicoara’s mother, an allergist, ran a blood test that confirmed what she feared: Nicoara, then 19, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia.

“We actually talked about it long after (I was first diagnosed) … she said, ‘I had a gut feeling that something was deeply wrong,’” Nicoara said of her mother.

Because she was 19, Nicoara was treated by a pediatric oncologist at the UW Health Kids | Carbone Cancer Center at American Family Children’s Hospital. She completed months of in-patient chemotherapy and developed close relationships with her nursing staff.

“There are so many that would take the extra time to get to know me and sit at my bedside and help me make hard decisions about my treatment, about my life, and just really get to understand what I was going through without passing any judgment, and just being able to hold space for me when I needed it — that was huge,” Nicoara said.

She was so inspired by their compassion that she decided to apply for nursing school. While Nicoara completed chemotherapy and was cancer-free in 2019, her nursing school plans were delayed by COVID-19 and her compromised immune status.

She started at the UW–Madison School of Nursing in Fall 2021, but in early 2022, the hives on her feet had returned and she felt “off.” An initial blood test didn’t show anything wrong, but when Nicoara decided to test again two weeks later, they found her AML had returned.

“It was horrendous to hear,” she said. “It had been so long, I was so far away from (when I had finished treatment) and in my head, I was like, ‘If I just make it to five years I never have to worry about this again.’ And it was just really tough.”

This time, Nicoara’s treatment would be handled as an adult patient through UW Health | Carbone Cancer Center. She quickly found a good rapport with her new oncologist, Dr. Zhubin Gahvari, which made her care transition easier.

Gahvari determined that chemotherapy followed by a bone marrow transplant would be Nicoara’s best option for curative treatment. Because she had no siblings and is of mixed ethnicity, Nicoara’s odds of finding a matching donor were even tougher. Luckily, a woman living in Germany was registered as a bone marrow donor and was a suitable match for Nicoara.

“My stem cells flew across the ocean to get to me, which is insane to me to think about,” she said.

The experience made Nicoara a strong advocate of the "Be The Match" bone marrow donor registry, signing up as many of her friends and family as possible.

“It’s so easy to join and the database keeps growing, which is so positive for people of mixed ethnicity and who are not white,” she said. “It’s just so important to advocate for more people to do that. So many people don’t end up finding donors.”

Nicoara underwent her bone marrow transplant in June 2022, but she had a long and difficult recovery that lasted several months. Nicoara’s immune status meant she could not immediately return to nursing school and clinical training, so she's shifted her focus to being a certified health coach so she could still build relationships and help people stay healthier.

“Health coaching allows me to be on the preventative side of medicine instead of the reactive side of medicine,” Nicoara said. “It lets me help people before they get sick and end up in a hospital bed where I would treat them as a nurse, and that’s where my passion really was, to be a support system for people.”

She also recently started a support group for female cancer patients called New Moon Rising. Meetings are held virtually each month and are free to join. The space is made for people by people that really understand everything that comes with the cancer journey. She shares upcoming meeting info on her website, repottedwellness.com.

“I wanted to have this space for women to come where they can talk in an accessible realm about how they’re feeling, what needs to get off their chest, and just to be held and supported by other women who really, really get it,” Nicoara said.

Nicoara shares her story in hopes that people will find small miracles within dark times and inspire people to keep going.