Created:Thursday, February 20, 2014 8:29 p.m.CDT
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Huntley's Nick LoPicollo wants to be known for swimming ability, not scar

Huntley's Nick LoPiccolo, who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer when he was 8, will swim Saturday in three events at the St. Charles North Sectional. (Photo provided)

As a child, Huntley swimmer Nick LoPiccolo had many interests. He was active and played a handful of sports before his body betrayed him.

He loved swimming, playing hockey, baseball and running. He also had a lump on his neck about the size of a thumb that appeared when he was 5 years old. He had it checked out periodically, but doctors weren't concerned.

But during one of those regular checks, a biopsy on LoPiccolo's lump revealed it had turned into thyroid cancer. He was 8 years old.

"When you're a parent and you hear cancer, it's devastating," said Melanie LoPiccolo, Nick's mother. "I couldn't believe it. It was insane."

The day the LoPiccolos got the news is seared into Melanie's mind. She was at work when the doctor called with the results of the latest biopsy taken a few days earlier. The family's next appointment was three days away, and it was a challenge not to think the worst. In the waiting room in the oncology ward at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, Melanie feared the worst.

"It was really hard for those three days, but when we finally saw the doctor, he put us at ease," Melanie said. "He said it was one of the most curable cancers."

Nick was scheduled for a surgery that involved taking out his thyroid and the lymph nodes in his neck. Doctors also feared the cancer had spread to his chest and lungs, which is common among those with cancer similar to Nick's. So the doctors opened him up. Because of the invasive surgery, he has a scar that runs almost from ear to ear across his neck.

"It looked like he had a chopped off head," Melanie said.

Added Nick: "It's a nice big one. It's pretty scary looking."

Once the surgery was finished, Nick had to go through several radioactive iodine treatments because chemotherapy is ineffective with thyroid cancer. He spent about three weeks in the hospital receiving treatment and care after the surgery and has been cancer-free ever since.

"In the oncology ward you see a lot of parents that have kids that are dying," Melanie said. "I was there, too, and I felt very lucky and fortunate to be able to leave with my kid."

Trips to the doctor are still a very real part of Nick's life as he makes two visits a year to check on his condition. He figures it will be something he has to do for the rest of his life.

Although the cancer was gone, the treatments took a toll on Nick's body and made doing the things he loved, such as playing hockey, impossible.

"It was very tiring," Nick recalled. "I couldn't really do a whole lot. It was restricting and I couldn't do most sports. I could only swim."

Melanie and Nick's grandmother, Brigitta Kempken, have been around the sport of swimming almost their whole lives, both former swimmers and now coaches of the Elgin Pelicans club team. Nick has even started coaching the younger swimmers, so it's fitting that swimming is the only sport he can do without restrictions.

Nick said the first thing people notice when they see him is the lengthy scar spanning his neck, but he hopes to make people notice him for his swimming ability. He placed fifth at the Fox Valley Conference Invitational in the 200-yard freestyle and is dropping time rapidly after fearing his ability had plateaued earlier in the season.

And now, nine years after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer, 17-year-old Nick will be swimming most likely his final meet for Huntley on Saturday in the St. Charles North Sectional.

Huntley coach George Keenan has appreciated the senior's work ethic this season and has entered him in three events Saturday. A team may enter only two swimmers in each event at sectionals, and Nick will swim the 200 freestyle, 50 freestyle and a leg on the 200 freestyle relay.

"Hopefully," Nick said, "I can medal."