Nicole Shulz was diagnosed with cancer at 14. Over the next 14 years, she underwent bone marrow transplants, chemotherapy, and radiation, amongst other aggressive procedures. These treatments saved her life, but the side effects included making it nearly impossible for Nicole to become pregnant.
Nicole defied odds by beating her cancer, and defied odds again by becoming pregnant without intervention amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Nicole and her partner Jordan welcomed their healthy baby boy to the world in November 2020. I had the chance to talk to Nicole about her journey to finally become a mom, and it's a heartrending one.
This is her story.
Nicole thought she had the flu over Christmas break in 2005. It was bad; so bad that she was too tired to open presents on Christmas Day. Her family knew something serious was going on.
The fact that she was feeling unwell was surprising; she was extremely athletic and active, competing as a Varsity cheerleader and bull rider, who surfed, skateboarded and competed in beauty pageants in her free time.
And Nicole's family's suspicion that Nicole was battling something more extreme than the flu was confirmed shortly after Christmas: Nicole was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia (AML).
Nicole would come to find out that one of the reasons for her cancer was that her school campus was contaminated from PG&E groundwater pollution in a case made famous by Erin Brockovich in 1993.
One of the procedures Nicole required in those early days was a bone marrow transplant, which was preceded by radiation as a way to prep the cells. Nicole explained to me that these were the days before targeted radiation, so her entire body was treated, including her ovaries and uterus.
And that's when doctors explained that to her that a side effect of radiation was that she'd never be able to have biological children. She remembers the conversation, and even vividly recalls signing a consent form acknowledging that the treatment resulted in infertility. Shocking and surreal for a girl who was only a teenager.
"I was heartbroken when I learned [it caused infertility]," Nicole told me. "Because ever since I was little, I wanted to be a mom."
But Nicole felt like she had no choice at that point. If she wanted to live, she needed the bone marrow transplant and radiation, and infertility was one of the prices she'd have to pay.
Nicole spent the following years recovering, suffering a relapse that led to a second bone marrow transplant amongst other treatments and surgeries, and then finally beat cancer in her mid-twenties.
On Wanting Motherhood
Throughout our entire conversation, Nicole kept referencing hope, strength and mind over matter as significant elements in conquering her health challenges. "You have to be able to fight," she explained. And dealing with infertility was no different. "I still had hope [about becoming pregnant]. That's just my personality. When someone says 'no,' I'm like 'uhhh, I'm going to see'.
Nicole went on to explain that even though she knew she'd start a family one day, she'd accepted it wouldn't be possible "without medical intervention and a medical miracle." It wasn't just that first round of radiation at age 14 that caused infertility, it was also countless treatments following that as well.
"Having a family had always been something I wanted, so I knew I wanted to try everything I could," For Nicole, that meant adoption, in vitro… anything she and her partner could do to welcome a child to this life.
You've heard about surprise pregnancies, but Nicole's was next level surprise. Her son, Kaiden, was conceived without treatments, which was the biggest shock to Nicole, who's now 29 years old. Apart from knowing that multiple treatments she'd had over the years resulted in infertility—like chemotherapy and radiation—Nicole was also on birth control for her bone health at the time.
"How I found out I was pregnant was that I got COVID." She and Jordan both felt mild symptoms —like the inability to taste or smell—which was surprising to Nicole based on her compromised immune system.
"But then I got scared, because my heart started pounding really hard and fast. I knew blood clots were a complication that came with COVID. And one of the issues that comes from all my past treatments too is cardiovascular issues. So I was like 'oh my God, I don't want to drop dead and have a heart attack...'". Nicole went to her local emergency room.
After testing, the medical staff told Nicole they found a "surprise" in her blood. Thankfully, that surprise was "you're pregnant!".
"I was still hooked up to the heart monitor, and the machine was going BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, because I started freaking out!".
Because she and Jordan were still COVID positive, she wasn't able to go to the OB/GYN for two weeks. Nicole and Jordan couldn't help but be scared of miscarrying based on Nicole's past medical history. "It was two weeks of super high anxiety, because I didn't know if my body was even going to be viable to keep the pregnancy."
When she finally got to go to the OB/GYN, she discovered more news that was a complete surprise: She was already 14 weeks along. She'd gone through her entire first trimester without even knowing or suspecting she was pregnant, including a lack of morning sickness.
Nicole joked, "I think God was like, you've thrown up so much during your treatments, so I'm just going to let you not throw up for this!"
At that point, her doctor told her that she'd surpassed the high-risk part of the pregnancy where she'd have been most likely to lose the baby, which was incredible news to Nicole.
"I just started bawling. I cried so hard because that was [my] kid, and he told me, 'this is happening'."
Despite that good news, Nicole and Jordan still had worries about the health of their child, and proceeded to have genetic and anatomy tests done. "Everything just kept coming back great. That was the biggest thing, because all I did was pray all day and all night to have a healthy baby, because I was just so terrified of my body rejecting the baby."
She explained that talking to her partner was one of the key stress relievers during her pregnancy, and she recommends all expecting moms—especially those carrying in the pandemic—to do the same, if possible.
On Giving Birth
Nicole woke up at 4 am one morning to wetness. It was about seven weeks before her due date, and she didn't think the wetness was the type of wetness you feel when your water breaks. So Nicole felt a wave of nervousness, woke up Jordan and they drove to the hospital.
There was a tear in her water sack, and it turns out Kaiden was coming early. Nicole had a C-section at 34 weeks, and because the baby was so early, the medical staff told Nicole he'd have to stay in the NICU for a month and would be on a feeding tube.
But Nicole recalls the moments following Kaiden's birth. "After they pulled him out all I heard was 'WAAAAA', and I thought, that sounds like strong lungs. And I started bawling, I was just so happy."
Nicole's instinct was correct. Kaiden was healthy enough to eat and breathe on his own, and regulate his own body temperature. Ultimately, he only stayed in the NICU for six days.
After hearing about Kaiden's early days, I commented that he had a fighter's spirit. Nicole laughed and said, "It's funny, because 'Kaiden' means warrior and fighter."
On Her, Jordan, and Kaiden's Future
For Nicole and Jordan, the future is bright. They look forward to spending time as a family, watching Kaiden grow, and can't wait to get Kaiden into infant swim lessons and on a skateboard as soon as he can walk. Their next post-pandemic adventure? Seeing the Northern Lights in Norway.
Professionally, Nicole's dedicated her life to philanthropy. She's a motivational speaker, helps run a charity her family founded that raises money for pediatric patients and their families, and has spent years working at various departments within City of Hope. She plans to continue each of those roles, in addition to currently writing a book.
To connect with Nicole and stay up to date on her speaking engagements, book release, and travels, you can follow her at @nclshulz on Instagram.