CLEARWATER — Melissa Mugno has lost out on a lot of fun this year as a freshman at Clearwater High School. Since being diagnosed with bone cancer, not once, but twice, she's missed many events.
But not this Friday, when she'll reign as honorary chair of Relay for Life of Clearwater, a fundraiser and all-night party.
Relays for Life are the American Cancer Society's signature fundraisers. They take place around the world, with people camping out at parks and high schools. Team members take turns walking around a track or pathway and always have one member walking — because cancer never sleeps.
Neither will Melissa this Friday. She'll join other cancer survivors and supporters in Coachman Park.
At the age of 15, she knows what cancer can do to a family.
"It was Feb. 17, 2009, and I'd been living with a lot of pain, but nothing held me back," Melissa said. "We walked outside to take Mom to work and I fell on the sidewalk. At Morton Plant Hospital, we found out my femur had snapped. The doctor told my parents it was either an ACL tear or cancer that caused the break."
It was osteosarcoma, a primary bone cancer mostly found in youths. Treatment requires surgery to remove the tumors.
"My mom said I asked her, 'Mommy, am I going to lose my leg? Am I going to lose my life?' I stayed hospitalized two weeks, getting chemo, and had an external fixator screwed into my leg," Melissa said.
That summer, Melissa's hip ball joint, femur and knee were replaced with cobalt and chrome.
"My heroes are my surgeon, David Cheong, who saved my leg, and my oncologist, Damon Reed," Melissa said.
Her parents, Rick and Jo Lynn Mugno, say Melissa is their hero.
Besides surgery, Melissa underwent more than a year of chemotherapy. Yet by May 2010, she had a constant cough. Follow-up scans showed the cancer had metastasized to her lungs. She went back on chemotherapy.
Last July, she was back in the operating room.
"She was about to give up," said her dad, Rick Mugno. "Her mom and I almost lost her three times. It's an ironic story of how she came to be Relay Chair. We were visiting a friend who has a river house in Weeki Wachee and her next-door neighbor was Jay Polglaze, event chair for the Relay for Life Clearwater. He heard Melissa's story. God brought us together."
Melissa had one last nodule to be taken out, which was removed in January. The lab results came back benign, or noncancerous.
"What an amazing family the Mugnos are," said Polglaze, chairman of Friday's event. "When faced with extreme difficulties, challenges and setbacks, they continue to fight and rebound, never giving up.
"Melissa is without a doubt the bravest 15-year-old girl we have ever met, and we are especially happy to report Melissa is cancer-free today."
Next Wednesday, Melissa will go in for more follow-up scans. If they're clear, she'll have her chemotherapy port removed from her chest.
Since becoming honorary chair, Melissa has been publicly speaking about cancer and building her Relay for Life team, Cruisin' for a Cure. She's also collaborating with fellow Relay committee member Jenny Esno to start her own cancer foundation, Pray Until Something Happens, or PUSH. For more information about PUSH, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
"I want to create a cancer foundation that reaches out to siblings," Melissa said. "My sister Jennifer is a Clearwater High senior, and she would drop anything she was doing to make me happy."
Melissa will bring 60 people with her to Relay for Life on Friday night. "I think giving back is important when so many people have helped me," she said.
She wants everyone to know they can come by and walk just one lap. Many of the laps are themed, like the basketball lap, where walkers dribble basketballs. Or come dressed in costume for the Middle Ages lap. Maybe walk a lap backward or "Walk Like an Egyptian." All laps are for fun and support cancer research. Or show support by buying items from the silent auction.
After dark, a luminaria ceremony will light up the darkness to remember those who have been lost to cancer.
"I don't plan to sleep at all Friday night, although we'll have a tent set up," Melissa said. "I hope people show up and help us walk or maybe bring $100 and spend it at our flea market. Our theme is to make cancer history and as a two-time cancer survivor, that's what I'm hoping."