For the 2017-18 season, the New Paltz men’s basketball team has adopted a “no complaining” rule and even in the face of extreme adversity, third-year guard Nick Paquette has remained a shining example. On April 29, Paquette was diagnosed with leukemia as a sophomore in college.
Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) is a type of cancer that starts in certain blood-forming cells of bone marrow. As the cells grow and divide, they build up inside the bone marrow, eventually spilling over into the blood and other parts of the body.
“Finding out that I had chronic myeloid leukemia as a 20-year-old athlete in college really hurts,” Paquette said. “It hurt a lot finding that out, but I’m very fortunate in my situation because people my age generally don’t get it… because I’m so young and so healthy, I think I was able to recover quicker and my body can accept the treatment better.”
After his diagnosis, Paquette spent a week in the hospital receiving treatment and learning about what he had. Targeted therapy drugs are the main treatment for CML, but patients often need other forms of treatment, including interferon, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery or stem cell transplants.
Paquette said that, although the diagnosis was a shock to him and his family, the doctors explained that he would be able to go back to the same routines every day after he recovered. He used this to stay positive and motivated to get healthy.
Men’s basketball head coach Keith Kenney said that Paquette’s positivity has been an inspiration to everyone that has been around him. He commended Paquette for his eagerness to share his story and refusal to shy away from it.
“I’ve never heard him complain once, I’ve never heard him ask ‘why me?’ although I’m sure he has to himself,” Kenney said. “At the beginning of his treatment he kind of made a pact not to feel sorry for himself, but just be positive and know that positive energy can actually help heal your body.”
For the first couple of weeks, Paquette was pretty weak, but once he was able to get out of bed, he started walking, then jogging, then shooting free throws and within a couple of months he was able to step on the court for a light pickup game.
“The most important thing I want him to be is healthy and to have fun playing again,” Kenney said. “He’s probably in the best shape out of anyone on the team which is amazing after what he’s gone through and is still going through.”
Due to Paquette’s medication, his body has had a hematological response, meaning that his white and red blood cells have returned to a normal level. This is also the first noticeable indicator that the treatment began to work, but not necessarily in the bone marrow.
A person’s typical white blood cell count is around 7,000; at the time of Paquette’s diagnosis, it was at 400,000. Now that it is back to normal, Paquette will continue to take the medication while he waits for his body to have a molecular response, meaning that the cancer gene percentage in his body is very minimal or no longer detectable. This can take anywhere from three months to 10 years and Paquette will likely remain on medication long after.
Most CML patients are treated using targeted therapies called tyrosine kinase inhibitors. These drugs include imatinib (Gleevec), dasatinib (Sprycel), nilotinib (Tasigna) and omacetaxine mepesuccinate (Synribo). The most common side effects of these drugs are mild nausea or loss of appetite. Some patients may also experience fatigue, skin rashes, chronic diarrhea, muscle aches, muscle spasms and headaches as a result of their treatment.
“Honestly, I feel fantastic,” Paquette said. “Just moving around doing athletic activities helps because it just puts my brain in another place and the side effects, I don’t really have any if I don’t think about it.”
If Paquette’s white blood cell count were to shoot back up, it would be difficult for him to recover from illness or injury, but now he only has to go for checkups every couple of months just to make sure his blood levels continue to react to the medication correctly.
Paquette said that when people found out about his diagnosis, the news spread like wildfire and he received calls and texts from almost everyone he has ever encountered.
“It kept me motivated to get back to where I was and show people that I can overcome this,” he said. “People want to see other people be successful and happy. If I saw someone else in a similar situation, I would obviously lend them the utmost support and to have that for myself, it was great, really great.”
Smithtown High School West, Paquette’s high school, organized a 3 vs. 3 tournament as a fundraiser after getting wind of his diagnosis. Although the event was thrown together quickly, the outpour was incredible, according to Smithtown head boys’ basketball coach Mike Agostino.
“It was put together last minute and I was a little concerned with how it was going to be and if we could get enough people,” Agostino said. “It turned out that we probably could have done it for two more nights and filled it up with how many people wanted to help.”
According to Agostino, about 400 kids showed up ranging from New Paltz students, Smithtown High School West students and students from other surrounding areas that had known or played with Paquette. Even people that were unable to get in because the event had reached capacity still wanted to donate.
Agostino added that Paquette joined the varsity team as a sophomore during his first year coaching the program and that Paquette’s impact is still felt from how hard he practiced each and every day. He said that Paquette is a large part of their recent success including back-to-back championship titles.
“He was one of the most beloved kids in the school; so sweet, thoughtful and kind but he still had that edge when it came to playing,” Agostino said. “He’s a well-liked kid there’s no doubt about it and as a player and athlete he really has the full equation you want.”
Kenney said that he has been a fan of Paquette’s since he first saw him play at New Paltz his freshman year. He added that it has been great to transition to get to know him now from a coaching perspective rather than from the bleachers.
Paquette is one of the best shooters in the league and a changed person for the better, according to Kenney.
“Now that he’s a junior and he’s gone through something that most people thankfully never have to go through, I think he’s a changed person for the better,” he said. “He was always a positive, respectful person, but now he has a different perspective from everyone else on the team.”
Third-year guard Matt Misser grew up playing with Paquette and said he views Paquette as a brother. According to Misser, big things can be expected from Paquette and the rest of the team this season.
“We all have high hopes for this season, and Nick is undoubtedly going to be a huge part of it,” Misser said. “I believe that he is going to have one of his best seasons to date.”
Paquette said that he has remained positive and not allowed his experience to hold him back in any way. He has not fallen behind academically and is looking forward to this season with a blank slate.
“I’m excited, I feel like I can play like I used to; last season I felt like there was something holding me back and obviously something was,” he said. “But now I feel like a new person and have a whole new outlook on everything too: just no regrets, go out there and play as hard as you can every moment because you never know what could happen.”
Paquette knows that CML will impact him in some form for the rest of his life. Although he does not know what kind of career he wants to build in life yet, he hopes that he has set an example for any kids down the road that find themselves in a similar struggle.
“Now that this has arisen and I have this and I’m an athlete, maybe there’s going to be a kid down the road that has the same, a college athlete or a high school athlete and I would love to be an inspiration and show that you can still do it,” he said. “You can still push and you can still fight and it will be okay.”