By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
SMITHVILLE — What a way to spend your 15th birthday.
“Instead of getting her (driver’s) learning permit, we were getting surgery,” said Makenzie Martin’s mother, Cynthia.
That was two and a half years ago, and Makenzie, now 17 despite doctors saying she might not live to be 16, is not only in full remission from melanoma — skin cancer — but determined to help as many people as she possible can avoid what she had to go through.
Makenzie has established the Melanoma Miracles Foundation. It’s first big awareness and fund raising event will be May 19 at Smithville Lake, a fun walk and run beginning at Smith’s Fork Park and continuing across the dam that Makenzie expects to draw at least 200 people.
It has taken months of planning and preparation, on top of her St. Pius junior year class load that also includes advanced courses for college credit.
But worth it? Yeah, Makenzie said. It is something she has to do.
“In a way, I feel like I am supposed to do this,” Makenzie told The Catholic Key. “I’ve had so many people help me, and now I have to help someone else.”
Completely healthy and without any symptoms whatsoever, Makenzie’s ordeal began just before her freshman year when she was having a sports physical to go out for the volleyball team.
Makenzie’s doctor noticed a mole, about the size of the fingernail on her pinky, on her back, just below her shoulder, and told her and her parents to have it checked out by a dermatologist immediately.
Ten days before her birthday, she got the diagnosis. Cancer. And not just cancer, but Stage 2, Grade 4 melanoma that went deep into her skin. How deep, they wouldn’t know without surgery.
“They told us that if they couldn’t get it all out in a couple of surgeries, the odds weren’t good that I would live to be 16,” she said.
If you form a circle with both thumbs and forefingers, you get an idea of what the surgeons had to cut to get the tumor and all the surrounding tissue, Cynthia said. Then they had to sew that back up with 50 dissolving stitches on the inside and nearly another 30 on the outside.
“It runs across my shoulder,” Makenzie said of the scar that remains. “I had twice as many stitches (on the outside) as I was told.”
It would be another full year of treatments and doctor’s visits before she and her parents received the best news possible. The surgeons apparently got it all, it hadn’t spread anywhere else including her lymph nodes, and she was in full remission.
“You never say you are cancer-free,” Makenzie said.
But last month, Makenzie went to her high school prom and is preparing for college, a career and a full, normal life span.
To this day, she has no idea how she contracted melanoma. Fair-skinned and blue-eyed, Makenzie said her mother took all the precautions when she was growing up, slathering her with sunscreen when she was outside on those blistering hot summer days.
Makenzie also said that before her cancer, she knew next to nothing about melanoma. Now she is practically a walking, talking encyclopedia.
For example, you think slathering yourself and the kids in the morning sets you for an entire day in the sun? Guess again.
“The average-sized person should put on one ounce of sunscreen every hour,” she said. “If you have an eight-ounce bottle and you spend eight hours in the sun, you should use up that entire bottle in one day.”
And that SPF (sun protection factor) number is vital.
“50 is good. Anything below 30 is not going to do you any good,” she said. “I use between 90 and 100 because I’ve been diagnosed.”
And those popular tanning salons? Be extra careful, Makenzie said.
“I’m not telling people how they should get a tan, because that’s their choice. I only ask that they know the risks,” she said. “Ten or 12 minutes on a tanning bed is like four to five hours in the sun” as far as exposure to ultraviolet rays.
Sunscreen is also not just for the back, face, arms and legs, Cynthia added. One of the information booths at the Sunscreen Stroll will be sponsored by Burkman Podiatry in Smithville.
“People often forget to put sunscreen on their feet,” she said. “But the feet are just as vulnerable.”
Other booths will be sponsored by a variety of companies who make sunscreen, and two dermatologists will be on hand from Sunflower Dermatology to answer any questions, she said.
And another common target for skin cancer because they are not always protected adequately are the eyes, Makenzie said. That’s why ultraviolet-blocking sunglasses are important.
“We will be giving out sunglasses because melanoma affects the eyes,” she said. In fact, when the sun is shining brightly, Makenzie is never without her sunglasses, and not just because they look so cool.
She is well aware that she has to be doubly, triply cautious about the sun for the rest of her life.
Makenzie said that means that every time she visits any health care professional, including her dentist, she asks them to check for signs of cancer.
Early detection, she said, is the key. The earlier that a melanoma is caught, the easier it is to get rid of.
Makenzie said that every physical examination should include a close examination of skin. People should also check their own skin regularly for moles or unusual spots, and bring those to the attention of their physician even if they turn out to be nothing to worry about.
“They can usually tell by sight,” Makenzie said.
Cynthia added that at the Sunscreen Stroll, there will be pamphlets with photographs of melanoma lesions. “They can compare those to any spots they have on their body,” she said.
But still, they both said, if you don’t know for sure, don’t assume it’s nothing. Talk to a doctor.
“You should get everything checked out when you have a routine physical, including your skin,” Cynthia said.
Makenzie’s activism has already saved one life.
Cynthia said that a family friend, a professional emergency medical technician and single mother, decided to get some curious spots checked out.
“She said, ‘I got some moles, I think I’ll have them checked,’” Cynthia said. “Lo and behold, she had Stage 2 melanoma on the back of her leg.
“If we close the door on the foundation tomorrow, we have saved one person. That alone makes it all worth it,” Cynthia said.
“Mom,” Makenzie quickly added. “We’re not closing the door tomorrow.”
Registration for individuals and for teams for the May 19 Sunscreen Stroll will remain open up to and including the day of the event. More information and advance registration can be found at www.MelanomaMiracles.org.