Cancer survivor is again living the life of a teenager

Mark Edmondson doesn’t ask “Why me?”

The 18-year-old has endured more pain than most people suffer in a long lifetime.

“I’m still alive,” the Everett High School senior said Monday. “I appreciate a lot of things now most teenagers don’t.”

Two years ago today, when Edmondson was featured in this column, he’d just been diagnosed with an aggressive type of mouth cancer. He’d survived grueling surgery. Still ahead were months of chemotherapy and radiation.

At 16, as friends were staring to drive and enjoying high school, his future looked bleak. With every reason for self-pity, he never let himself sink.

“Never,” said his mother, Stephanie Edmondson. “There’s no complaining, no whining, no ‘Why me?’ He’s always been like that. He has kind of an old soul. I’m very proud of him,” she said.

She is also thankful beyond words. Today, Mark Edmondson is strong and fit. He missed a year of school, but is on track for June graduation. He works out at the YMCA and has two jobs. He looks forward to Thanksgiving with his mother, younger brother John, grandmother Celeste Berdahl and extended family.

Just a year ago, Mark had a feeding tube. At 5 feet, 10 inches tall, his mother said, he weighed 104 pounds. He finished radiation treatments at Seattle’s Swedish Medical Center in the spring of 2007. Since then, scans and biopsies have shown that he’s cancer-free. But last fall he suffered an intestinal infection. “He did not look like he was going to make it,” Stephanie Edmondson said.

Once he was able to eat normally, he began to reclaim the life of a teenager. He’s now a muscular 180 pounds. He splits his time between school, workouts and work at a Safeway store and a Subway shop.

“At Everett High, he’s taking the world by the tail,” said Berdahl, 75, who lives with the family. “His hair is all back and he’s all muscle. He eats everything he’s supposed to, no pop and no junk food.”

Mark Edmondson never had risky habits common to sufferers of his type of cancer, oral squamous cell carcinoma.

“Ninety-nine percent of my patients smoke and drink, or they did,” said Dr. David Moore, Mark’s surgeon at Swedish Medical Center. His specialty is otolaryngology, or head and neck surgery.

Moore said his teen patient had neither smoked nor used chewing tobacco. “You run into this sometimes. We don’t quite understand why their immune system allowed this,” said Moore, adding that it’s rare to see this cancer in someone so young.

“I think he’s done amazingly well,” the doctor said. “We’ll follow him for five years, and after five years you’re considered cured. To date, there is no evidence of recurrence.”

Stephanie Edmondson said they heard during the darkest times that Mark’s chance of survival was as low as 10 percent. Edmondson’s oncologist at Swedish, Dr. Gary Goodman, was unavailable to comment. Moore said he prefers to stay away from discussing odds. “I just tell my patients this is something that can be cured,” he said.

Moore said he had no choice but to be honest with the teen about his prognosis. “You can’t look somebody in the eye and not tell him the truth,” he said. “I had to tell him, ‘Yes, you could die from this.’

“He’s come through a really, really challenging time at such an early age. It’s something most of us don’t have to do,” Moore said.

Mark Edmondson lives with lingering pain and scars left by surgery and radiation. At home Monday, he wasn’t shy about showing what it took to fight the disease.

The tumor removed two years ago was behind a molar. He opened his mouth to show that he’s missing teeth on the left side of his lower jaw. The bone there is so thin he isn’t allowed to play contact sports. Incisions went through his lip and chin, behind his ear and down his neck. He also lost much of the skin inside one side of his mouth.

Replacement skin, along with a vein and artery, was grafted from the inside of a forearm, where he has a large oval scar. To repair his arm, skin was taken from his thigh. Remarkably, his voice is normal and strong.

“People are staring at him constantly,” Berdahl said. The burning of radiation made the neck scar very visible, she said.

Mark takes the stares in stride. “I’ve said I’ve been attacked by a bear, a shark, everything,” he said.

Life now is so much more than being a cancer survivor. His grandmother helped him buy an old Ford Thunderbird. He keeps an eye on his brother, a freshman at Everett High.

The medical bills are staggering. Stephanie Edmondson has health insurance through her job at Fred Meyer in Lynnwood. There’s a $1 million insurance cap, and Mark said $750,000 has been used. “Every radiation treatment was $12,000, and I had it five days a week for six months. I’m in medical debt,” he said.

The bills don’t prevent him from looking ahead, perhaps toward a career in nutrition or physical therapy.

At Immaculate Conception/Our Lady of Perpetual Help School, where Mark went to grade school, fifth-grade teacher Karen Lovick remembers him as a favorite pupil. “What a good kid,” she said. “You have kids who kind of stand out in your class, and he stood out.”

When her husband, Sheriff John Lovick, was a state representative, Mark Edmondson served as page in the Legislature. “He’s a good leader,” Karen Lovick said. “When he had cancer he would come to visit me, just to say hi and give me a hug. I love him.”

Lovick said he once told her, “Whatever’s going to happen is going to happen. From a 17-year-old, that is so profound,” she said.

Stephanie Edmondson can’t breathe a complete sigh of relief. “I’m lucky,” she said, “But he’s not cured, he’s in remission.”

Even at Thanksgiving, do you dare ask this mother about gratitude? I did.

“I am grateful,” she said, “for everything.”

Columnist Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

Fund set up to help cancer survivor

Everett High School senior Mark Edmondson battled an aggressive mouth cancer in 2006 and 2007. He is now cancer-free, but his family continues to struggle with medical expenses. Donations to the Mark Edmondson Fund are accepted at all area KeyBank branches.

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