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Cancer battle gives cheerleader new focus on life

December 19, 2011
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The battle to fight a devastating rare liver-cancer diagnosis turned into a life-changing experience for Mackenzie Odom at age 17.

Although it was a painful experience that tested her strength and will, the Mesa teen said the diagnosis gave her a new lease on life, put her life in focus and made her appreciate the things around her even more.

“It makes you realize how precious life is,” said her mom, Annette Odom. “Cancer can strike anyone. It really hit her peers.”

Three days after her birthday in April, Mackenzie had unbearable pain in her right side.

Trips to urgent care and then to the emergency room revealed a large mass on her liver.

A biopsy a week later affirmed the shocking news: Mackenzie had a rare form of liver cancer and faced only a 50/50 survival chance without surgery.

Mackenzie had the 11-hour surgery four days later to remove the tumor and half of her liver. The surgery performed by Dr. Jonathan Greenfield was a success. She was in intensive care for seven days at Cardon Children’s Medical Center in Mesa and four days later she was able to go home.

Although technically she was cancer-free, her doctors still wanted to do precautionary chemotherapy treatment to make sure.

To get a second opinion on the best treatment for Mackenzie, the family visited the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

“I didn’t want regular chemo where I would lose all my hair if I didn’t have to,” Mackenzie said. “I knew a friend who died from cancer after getting the wrong treatment.”

Dr. Cynthia Herzog in Houston worked with Dr. Michael Graham at the Cardon Children’s Medical Center for a treatment plan that would allow Mackenzie to take her medicine at home and continue to go to school, participate in cheerleading and play the violin in the school orchestra.

She had already lost a month of school at the end of her junior year at Desert Ridge High School, which is in Mesa but part of the Gilbert Public Schools district. She didn’t want to miss school during her senior year.

Mackenzie received two types of medicine through a shot and a pump she wore in a fanny pack. The pump was connected to a port in Mackenzie’s chest, which administered the medicine.

Although she had some side effects from the medicine, such as thinning hair, upset stomach and hands and feet that felt raw and would peel, the four-month treatment worked out great for a busy teenager. “The pump was annoying, but it was saving my life,” Mackenzie said. “I’m still on a high about how I was helped.”

Mackenzie, the cheer captain on Desert Ridge’s varsity squad, was able to continue cheering during her treatment. Because of lower energy, she often had to sit out during the third quarter of a football game to regain her strength.

She also was named homecoming queen in October.

Annette Odom said other students and parents were surprised she was even sick.

“You’d never know she was sick. People were shocked when they found out she had cancer,” said Annette, a third-grade teacher at Wilson Elementary School in Mesa. “It was amazing.”

Now, Mackenzie is off her medicine and feeling well.

“We can’t find any evidence of her disease, and right now she’s doing very well,” Graham said. “Hopefully, this does it. Certainly given her treatment we’re hoping she is cured.”

Her experience helped her focus her life, and now Mackenzie plans to go to school, maybe at the University of Oklahoma, to be a pediatric nurse, possibly working in oncology. She also wants to give motivational speeches to tell her story and help others.

“She’s been so blessed,” Annette said. “This truly has given her a real focus and direction in life. It’s really grounded her.”

The cheerleaders and the football players at Desert Ridge wore emerald green ribbons to support Mackenzie and bring awareness to liver cancer. Mackenzie’s boyfriend, Austin Herrera, is a middle linebacker on the varsity team.

“She really maintained a wonderful attitude all the way through,” Graham said. “She’s happy it’s over and we’re happy she made it through with relatively few complications.”

Article source: http://www.azcentral.com/12news/news/articles/2011/12/17/20111217GPS-student-cheerleader-cancer-battle.html

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