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Family says 'Not again' to cancer

There was a change in Erica Nichols. She wasn’t herself. She was always tired. Parents notice these things.

But what Eric and Shanna noticed in their little girl, they didn’t want to believe. Couldn’t believe.

Life can’t be that cruel, can it?

Only a year earlier — March 5, 2006 — Erica’s twin sister Kaitlyn died from leukemia. She was 2 1/2.

On March 27, 2007, Erica was diagnosed with leukemia.

“That was . . . yeah,” Eric Nichols said.

He returned from the hospital and tore apart the garage in his Las Vegas home.

“I was so angry,” Eric said.

And determined.

Leukemia wasn’t going two-for-two in the Nichols house.

Eric and Shanna searched the country for the best cancer treatment centers and settled on MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Shanna and Erica moved there for what would be nine months of treatments.

Eric stayed home with their other two children, Cole, 9, and Amy, 4. He channeled his anger into the house, sort of remodeled the place.

While driving to work one morning, Eric heard Dick Vitale on the radio talking about the V Foundation for Cancer Research and Vitale’s own quest to rid the world of cancer.

How many times had Eric Nichols heard Jimmy Valvano’s famous speech? The one where Jimmy V, his body filled with tumors, talked about what it’s like to have cancer and what it’s like to live?

“A million times,” Eric said, “but until then it didn’t hit home.”

Eric e-mailed Vitale. He told his story to the ESPN college baseball analyst who lives in Lakewood Ranch.

Vitale, moved to tears, called Eric and asked if he could retell the story on air whenever he talked about the V Foundation and his own fundraiser, which is often.

“Of course,” Eric said. “Anything to help the cause.”

An obsession

The annual Dick Vitale Gala for Cancer Research is Friday night at the Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota. All 750 seats have been sold at $1,000 each.

Florida coach Billy Donovan and Louisville coach Rick Pitino will be toasted for their achievements on the basketball court.

Vitale has assembled quite a list of celebrities.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris, former Super Bowl MVP quarterback Doug Williams, former Bucs star Mike Alstott, golfer Paul Azinger and a who’s-who of college basketball: John Calipari, Tom Izzo, Tubby Smith, Tommy Penders, Anthony Grant and Digger Phelps will be on hand.

Florida football coach Urban Meyer will introduce Donovan. ESPN sideline reporter Erin Andrews is on the guest list.

So is NBA Hall of Famer Bob Lanier, who played for Vitale when Vitale coached the Detroit Pistons.

“It’s like unbelievable,” Vitale said.

But the real honored guests are those who have gone head-to-head with pediatric cancer.

Like 13-year-old Andrew Giddens, of Bradenton, who battled Hodgkin’s lymphoma last year.

And Tim Berg, the 16-year-old Cardinal Mooney junior who has beaten rhabdomyosarcoma.

And 19-year-old Anthony Negrin, of Bradenton, who is still fighting a rare blood cancer called Fanconi anemia.

Holly and Patrick Wright, of Lakewood Ranch, will be there, too. Last year’s gala raised $1.2 million in the name of their youngest daughter, Payton, who died in March 2006 from a rare form of brain cancer called medulloepithelioma, just weeks after her fifth birthday.

The Nichols will be there, as well, to share the story of Kaitlyn and Erica.

This is Vitale’s fourth gala. The first was held in his house. More than 350 people came. Vitale realized he could draw more people, raise more money. He moved the event to the Ritz-Carlton in 2007 and has raised more than $1 million each time.

“I love challenges,” Vitale said. “If you put your mind and your heart into it, you can do it.”

By “it,” Vitale means find a cure for cancer.

“I’m obsessed with it,” Vitale said.

The brass bell

Eric Nichols is glad.

“You can hear the passion in his voice,” Eric said. “I think this is awesome. People hear cancer, but it’s always just there. As a society, we never said, ‘Let’s take care of this.’ Why can’t we be this passionate about something that destroys everybody’s family?”

Soon after Kaitlyn was diagnosed with leukemia, the Nichols had Erica checked out. Nothing, doctors said.

They had Erica checked again and again.

“She was fine,” Eric said. “She always came back fine.”

A year after Kaitlyn passed away, Eric and Shanna noticed Erica wasn’t quite herself.

They sensed something was horribly wrong. Kaitlyn had acted the same way before she was diagnosed.

“We had a bad feeling,” Eric said. “I had to take her in. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want this to happen again.”

It was leukemia. Same as Kaitlyn.

But, good news, the Nichols caught it early, they were told.

Still, they returned home angry. They vented. Eric destroyed his garage. Then they sat down and calmly came up with a plan. They settled on MD Anderson.

They threw a big party for Erica that weekend. There were slides and water balloon fights.

On Monday, Shanna and Erica left for Houston, where they had rented an apartment close to MD Anderson.

“We knew what Erica was about to go through,” Eric said. “Erica knew what was going on. She knew what she had. She knew what it did to her sister. We wanted her to know it would be OK. She was going to get some medicine, get better and come home.”

Erica is nearing the end of her chemotherapy. After nine months of treatment, Erica was well enough to return home. She now travels to Houston for her chemo. So far, all of Erica’s tests are fine, but they won’t know for another five years if Erica is cancer-free.

“After that it’s wait and see, hope and pray that it never comes back,” Eric said.

Erica has one more round of chemo May 19. There is a brass bell at the front desk inside MD Anderson. Patients ring it as they leave after completing their final chemo treatment.

Eric and Shanna can’t wait to hear Erica clang that bell.

Touch ’em all

Erica is a happy little girl, her dad said.

She’s thrilled with what her dad did to the bedroom she shares with Amy. Eric painted the room light blue, pink and purple — Erica’s favorite colors. The walls are covered with every princess known to Disney.

The family recently took a trip to Orlando as part of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. They hit all the theme parks — Disney, Universal, Sea World. Erica rode all the rides.

“She’s a roller coaster nut,” said her dad. “She got on Space Mountain, and that was the end of that.”

Erica loves Hannah Montana and baseball.

She hit her first home run the other night for her T-ball team.

“Unbelievable,” her dad said. “She must have hit the sweet spot.”

Erica sent the ball over the head of the shortstop where it bounced between the outfielders. Running as fast as her 5 1/2 year old legs would take her, Erica circled the bases.

High-fives for everyone.

“And wouldn’t you know it,” Eric said, “that was the one game we didn’t videotape.”

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