Five years after she captained the Tribe field hockey team to a NCAA Tournament appearance, Jessica Nixon ’03 stepped onto the turf at Busch Field Saturday morning with renewed pride. It was just five months ago that she learned the cancer in her colon, even after treatment, had metastasized, or spread to other organs in her body.
“That was the hardest part of the past year and a half and even harder than being diagnosed initially,” Nixon said. “You finish chemotherapy, and to find out the cancer has spread is the worst. It was very hard emotionally, but the news has been positive since then.”
Saturday, flanked by former teammates and her mom Kathy, Nixon walked across the finish line of the first-ever Stix for Nix Fun Run 5K in the middle of Busch Field. She couldn’t stop smiling as a crowd of more than 150 people clapped for her and cheered her name.
“It’s unbelievable,” she said. “It feels surreal to me to be the one everyone is rallying behind. I couldn’t make it through any of this without everyone’s support.”
During her four years in Williamsburg, Nixon left an indelible legacy on the field hockey program.
Head Coach Peel Hawthorne remembers “Nix” as a physically impressive athlete who anchored the Tribe’s defense. At 5 feet 9 inches, she was the team’s tallest player her senior year. She also led the Tribe in assists and scored a game-winning goal against Dartmouth College.
“Her class had the fire and talent to pull off some fun upsets, especially against U.Va.,” Hawthorne said.
Julie Zoolkoski ’03, now the head field hockey coach at American International College in Massachusetts, how recalls how her friend was an invaluable leader who loved to repeat the phrase “Jog it or die” during practices to motivate teammates.
“Nix would never stop and would always be trucking along,” Julie said.
When her coach and teammates heard the news that Nixon had been diagnosed with stage III colon cancer in November 2006, they were shocked. She was only 25 at the time, and her family did not have a history of colon cancer.
The American Cancer Society does not even recommend getting a colonoscopy procedure done before age 50. However, after Nixon reported frequent abdominal pains throughout the summer of 2006, she finally got a referral to see a gastroenterologist in Philadelphia in the fall. It was then that the tumor in her colon was found.
“Anytime a young person is stricken with a disease, it’s just devastating to hear, especially with Jess, knowing how active she is,” Hawthorne said.
In the winter of 2007, three of Nixon’s closest friends and former teammates — Zoolkoski, Jordan Steele ’03 and Ann Ekberg ’03 — began brainstorming ways to help with her recovery. Steele is currently an assistant coach at Stanford University, while Ekberg is the assistant director of marketing in the College’s athletic department. The trio conferred with Hawthorne and other field hockey alumnae. Soon afterward, they formed the Stix for Nix organization.
Dedicated to increasing awareness of colon cancer and supporting Nixon, the Stix for Nix founders began planning a 5K fun run during Tribe field hockey’s annual alumnae weekend. This weekend, they are also hosting a field hockey tournament in Haddonfield, N.J., Nixon’s hometown.
Zoolkowski’s brother Carl, a frequent spectator at Busch Field during his sister’s playing days and currently a track coach, took on the role of race director. Steele’s brother Joey, who resides in Williamsburg, also lent support.
“Oftentimes, people don’t think to do something like this until a person is gone,” Carl said. “We decided we’re not waiting for that and said that’s never going to happen. Hopefully, the results are Jess recovering. If that’s not what happens, then we’ll know she knows how much we care about her.”
In the first few months of 2008, Nixon’s health has improved markedly, a fact she eagerly reports to friends and family on her blog. A CAT scan taken April 2 revealed there were no longer any lesions on her liver, and the lymph nodes in her chest were stabilized. The news even led her to write that she would “start hitting the bottle again” after there was no new metastasis. “Just kidding!” she added.
Despite making progress, Nixon spends most of Thursday and Friday at home during weeks when she has chemotherapy treatment. Last Thursday, she drove down to Williamsburg from Philadelphia in advance of her normal end-of-the-week side effects. She has also been unable to return to her job at the Advanta Bank Corporation.
Saturday morning, Nixon chatted with several friends, who joined her in walking the 5K route. Even though she competed in a 5K race this fall for the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults in Maryland, she said she didn’t have enough energy to run across the College’s campus. Still, that did not stop her from laughing at old memories and greeting Pi Beta Phi sorority sisters.
“I think my life has still been so good. It’s still so normal to me,” Nixon said. “The hard stuff you just get through, and then it’s over.”
Both Ekberg and Julie see similarities between Nixon’s approach to the game of field hockey and how she has dealt with colon cancer. The same “Jog it or die” mentality she used to inspire teammates as a senior co-captain has carried over to the present day, according to Julie, who often travels down from Massachusetts to drive Nixon to chemotherapy.
“She tries to get more done on days when she feels about 25,000 times worse than I do,” Julie said. “I’m like ‘Nix, don’t you want to just hang out?’ But she just keeps going and going.”