Coming back for the fall of her sophomore year as a University of Texas varsity rower after a successful freshman spring, Caitlin Shick was excited for another sprint season and the prospect of perhaps moving up into a first varsity boat.
"I started my sophomore year off super strong because I had a really good freshmen spring," Shick said.
Schick didn't suspect her second year was about to go awry when she woke one morning and felt an inflamed lymph node in her lower neck while stretching. It's not the first time she's had inflamed lymph nodes, she said. Allergies and colds have caused the same thing before.
And she was not surprised when she went to see the athletics trainer and was told they were going to give her "really good cold medicine" and that it would most likely resolve the issue. The trainers were not overly concerned because there was a flu going through the school's athlete population.
But when the lump didn't go away, and in fact, seemed firmer on a second examination, the trainer thought it best to send her for an ultrasound, the results of which caused even more concern. One test led to another until a biopsy was done, and the real cause of the issue was determined to be thyroid cancer.
"I felt the lump in early October, and on November 13th, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer," she said. That's when her second season on the Texas team came to a halt. "We went into winter break, and I had surgery."
There was no question that she would not be rowing during the spring season, and there was even a question in her mind if she would ever try to row again. But when the surgery to remove the thyroid and any remaining cancer cells from her lymph nodes was completed, she was determined to be cancer free. Only radiation treatments would be necessary during her recovery period.
"They found four or five lymph nodes that had cancer, and they extracted those. Then when we got the pathology results, it looked like the cancer cells did not spread anywhere else, so I am cancer free."
With that prognosis, Shick focused on getting through the radiation treatment and working to get back into training. With the support of coach Dave O'Neill and her teammates, Shick managed to train some while keeping up with her academics.
Today, after missing all of last spring, Shick is now completely back in the swing of the early season and looking forward to the team's first set of races at the San Diego Crew Classic next month.
"I think if my prognosis was a little worse than it was, I would have questioned if I wanted to row again," she said. "If I needed to do chemo-therapy, or stronger radiation, I think I definitely would have questioned going back to rowing," she said.
"But since I was able to catch the cancer so early, I was able to get surgery,, and then had radiation and everything was treated and I was doing OK. I felt like I was strong enough to come back. (Coach Dave O'Neill) and all my teammates were completely supportive.
Shick said that the support made her transition back to rowing easier and renewed her love of the sport.
"He was very lenient when I had to miss practice because of the treatment or if had to miss for a doctor's appointment when I started back up again this fall. My teammates were always checking in with me, asking me if I was OK. They were always in my corner."
The experience, Shick said, was difficult, but it also gave her a new perspective on life and her opportunities to row.
"I'm feeling so much better, and I definitely have a new mindset now because life is crazy," she said. "You never know what's going to happen, so I think every time I get on the erg, or get in the boat, I really try to give one hundred percent.
"I think everyone on the team has that mindset, and it's really empowering being around a team of women who are all in with this and ready to work really hard, get the meters in, and get fit so that we can do super well this season.
"I feel so lucky and blessed that I had the surgeons I did, for my endocrinologist, my ear, nose and throat doctors, the trainers at UT, and the coaches and teammates I have," she said. "I had so many people in my corner wanting to get me the best treatment and supporting me. I've heard other stories that didn’t turn out as well as mine did and I just can't help but think, what if that was me."
Shick secod from right on the podium after winning the Big 12 3V A final as a freshman