UNO alumnus battles cancer, hopes to inspire others

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Sitting on the edge of a barstool, Derek Noel catches up with friends while cupping a drink, his tone casual and the wattage of his smile illuminating the dimmed pub.  It’s a late March night, the air cool outside and the bar unusually warm with body heat, but Noel doesn’t seem to mind. He is relaxed and optimistic, the attitude that defines the 2013 graduate of the University of Nebraska at Omaha. It’s the weekend before Noel is to receive treatment for cancer, but right now he’s just enjoying a drink and the company of his loved ones.
“I told my close friends what I was dealing with, but didn’t really share with everyone,” Noel said. “I didn’t want to make it into some big thing, but it was nice to go out with friends before the big day.”
Noel’s big day came on April 4, when he received a below the knee amputation to treat a rare form of cancer that only two out of a million people get diagnosed with each year.  At only 23 years old, Noel was diagnosed with Synovial Sarcoma, which attacks the soft tissue and began in his left foot.
“When I heard the word ‘cancer,’ it was like a hammer hit me,” Noel says. “It scared the hell out of me.”
About seven months ago, Noel began to feel an odd pain in his foot that persisted even after he iced it. Three months later and a bump started to grow.
After visiting several doctors and originally the lump being diagnosed as a cyst, Noel learned he had cancer when he visited Dr. Sean McGarry, who specializes in orthopedic oncology at the Nebraska Medical Center, and underwent a biopsy.
Since it took some time to receive the correct diagnoses, amputation was the best option in order to ensure that there was no chance of cancer cells spreading.
“I try to look at this as just a little bump in life,” Noel said. “If anything, this experience has taught me to not take anything for granted. I’m staying strong, positive and optimistic all the way through.”
Noel isn’t alone in his battle. With a large support system- including his long-term girlfriend, Lora Kolobara, and his Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity brothers- the exercise science alumnus said it’s easy to have an optimistic outlook.
“It’s important that we support our brother in a time of need,” said Nick Harraill, a member of Pi Kappa Alpha. “He’s a great guy with a great attitude, and I know the chapter’s prayers are with him.”
This support system is stronger with the addition of his mother and father, who are both battling cancer as well. His mom has breast cancer and his dad has colorectal cancer, a family fighting together.
While his father undergoes chemotherapy, Noel said his mother is taking care of her son and husband and then worrying about herself. He also has an older brother, who he said is helping keep the family strong.
“I got my positive mindset from my dad. We are on this fight as a family,” Noel said. “We just take this day-by-day.”
After being diagnosed, Noel and his family quickly made the decision for him to undergo amputation. With no complications, Noel left the hospital after three days, his everlasting smile plastered on his face as he posed for pictures for his girlfriend.
Leading up to the surgery, Noel said he was anxious to get it over with, but he is now taking the adjustment in strides.
“I needed to accept that this had to happen in order to save my life,” Noel said.
His amputation will impact his life, but in positive ways, Noel said. He hopes his optimistic attitude during his struggle will inspire others and has considered becoming a motivational speaker.
“If I can give back to the community and help others with similar struggles, then I’ll be happy,” Noel said. “As an exercise science major, I devote my life to helping other, whether that be losing weight or learning to exercise. Now I can help others in a different way.”
For now, Noel is helping the community as a health specialist at Union Pacific. A Cubs fan and avid golfer, Noel has always incorporated athletics into his life and said he won’t let cancer stop him.
Looking towards the future, Noel is getting fitted for a prosthetic leg and hosting a fundraising “Leg Up” volleyball tournament on May 31 at Schmidley’s, open to the public to register for a team. The family is also accepting donations through their website at http://www.gofundme.com/8fo4sc.
“While it’s great that the volleyball tournament supports me to help get a prosthetic leg, my hope is that it gets everyone together to have a great time,” Noel said.
Since he has been home from the hospital, Noel hasn’t been taking any day for granted. From Wii bowling to wheelchair Frisbee, the UNO graduate says he is moving beyond cancer by looking forward to a July trip to Croatia and staying active.
“If there’s a beautiful day, I’ll get outside,” Noel said. “Taking one leg won’t stop me.”

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