Life Interrupted

A Norman Family’s Battle with Cancer

by Heide Brandes

Nick Incarnato’s cancer didn’t start out with classic symptoms. A senior at Norman High, he was a typical teenager with a typical teenage life until January 2018. He had a chance to go watch a University of Oklahoma basketball game, but simply didn’t feel good enough to go.

“We thought it was the flu,” said Nick’s mother, Laura Incarnato. “He had symptoms of the flu, like fever and fatigue. We took him to a minor emergency center, and he was treated for the flu. After seven days, he was no better, so we took him back and they did blood work.”
She knew from the doctor’s face that something else was wrong with her son.

“He looked freaked out. He told us to take Nick directly to the emergency room,” she said. “I think he suspected. Still, it was eight days before we got the official diagnosis.”

On Feb. 7, the Norman High School student was diagnosed with leukemia, and for the entire Incarnato family, life was turned upside down. While Nick Incarnato had the hard part of fighting off leukemia and enduring the trials that go along with it, the whole family suffered along with him. Laura Incarnato lost 18 pounds and her husband lost 20 pounds almost immediately. Nick’s two siblings had to watch their brother go through rounds of chemotherapy, lose his hair and suffer from treatments.

“It really pisses me off when people tell me that I’m so strong. I’m a mom. I lose it in my private moments, but I’m here for Nick. He’s the strong one,” Laura Incarnato said.

Treatment hasn’t been easy for Nick. Along the way, he got bacterial meningitis and had to have surgery. His lung was punctured when they put the chest tube in. He suffered paralysis. He has endured bone marrow aspirations with only local anesthesia. He had to stay home from school and away from friends due to his risk of infections and illnesses.

“He is a normal teenager who just had his life interrupted. He did some homeschooling, and Norman High was awesome about the whole thing,” said Laura Incarnato. “But it got to him. I saw him watch his friends do regular teenage things, like prom. Not being able to go to prom was hard for him. That was a bad night.”

“He did get to go to graduation. We didn’t think he’d be able to, but the school was so awesome,” Incarnato said. “We were at the Lloyd Noble Center, and they let him go through the players’ tunnel and be the first one on stage. They did a special tribute for him, and that was special for him.”

For the first six to nine months, Nick Incarnato underwent different phases of chemotherapy, and within a month, he’ll begin the maintenance phase of his treatment. He’ll lose the hair that just returned and undergo spinal tap chemo.

“It’s hard for him. He hates how he looks right now,” Laura Incarnato said. “He’ll have to take daily meds for at least two more years. Then, they say, we are done. But how do you go on with normal life after that?”

“The doctors are hopeful for a full remission. My philosophy is ‘One day at a time’.”

Though the prognosis is good for Nick, the chance that the cancer could return is ever-present. While he recently tested zero percent for cancer cells, the two-year journey ahead of Nick means that normal life like college is put on hold.

While leukemia ravaged Nick’s life, the whole family has been affected as well. The stress on the whole family was staggering.

“The financial part is devastating too,” Laura Incarnato said. “Having to go back to work was hard, because I felt like I was abandoning him. But, we all had to adjust to a new normal. No one can say how or why Nick got leukemia, and you don’t think about it until it happens.”

The ordeal did bring the family closer in ways most people can’t understand, she said. They learned to lean on each other for support and hope, but the Incarnato family has been changed forever.

“Every little thing scares you. If this could happen to my son, what keeps other bad things from happening,” she said. “I will say we have had a lot of good times together, though. You appreciate moments that most people take for granted. I wasn’t present before, but now I’m aware of every moment I have with the ones I love. We came through this together, and we helped each other go through it by being positive and keeping our spirits up.”

In February, a year after Nick’s diagnosis, Nick Incarnato and his family will visit Hawaii through the help of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. After that, Laura Incarnato said, her son still wants to go to college and resume a normal life. – BSM