Cancer-stricken teen encourages, educates others: 'I just want to give them hope'

High school junior said it does no good just to mope

lgierer@ledger-enquirer.comSeptember 23, 2013 

Martin Thiele likes to visit with young children who have cancer. He gives them encouragement and tells them they should keep their spirits up.

The Hardaway High School junior is battling cancer himself and said he knows it does no good just to mope.

"I want to give them hope," the 17-year-old said while sitting in a room at Midtown Medical Center (formerly known as The Medical Center), where he receives chemotherapy and has checkups with pediatric oncologist and hematologist Paul LoDuca.

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, and Martin has been active in getting everyone he knows to learn more about the problem.

The teenager, who dreams of being a pediatric nurse someday, said people hear a lot about other health problems -- such as breast cancer, AIDS and diabetes -- but childhood cancer often is overlooked.

"We want people to be aware of just how many children and their families are being affected by this," Martin said. "It is a lot."

According to the Pediatric Cancer Foundation, approximately 10,500 children under the age of 15 and 3,700 adolescents ages 15-19 are diagnosed with cancer every year in this country.

For those between the ages of 1-19, cancer is the fourth-leading cause of death and the leading cause of disease-related death, more than asthma, diabetes, cystic fibrosis and AIDS combined.

LoDuca said the most common form of childhood cancer is leukemia.

The physician currently works with seven local cancer patients.

He said Martin has a rare form of cancer, rhabdomyosarcoma, which forms in the soft tissues of striated muscle and can occur anywhere in the body. It was first noticed in Martin's right jaw but was later also found in his lungs.

LoDuca said this year there is expected to be 350 new cases of children with rhabdomyosarcoma. He said it accounts for only three percent of all childhood cancers and is more common in boys than girls. LoDuca said typically kids younger than 9 when diagnosed have a better chance of cure.

Martin's diagnosis came on Valentine's Day in 2011, but the signs came much earlier.

It was in October 2010 that Martin was heading out to the back porch of his home. It was dark as he passed through the sunroom, and he was moving quickly. He grabbed the door handle and slipped. The left side of his face hit the door.

A couple of weeks went by and Martin began experiencing some pain and swelling in his face, but it was on the right side.

Tests and X-rays did not reveal the problem. It was thought he might have temporomandibular joint dysfunction, but treatments for that were not effective.

It was not until February when Martin felt a lump behind his right ear that he received a CT scan.

His mother, Christy Mason, said the call came at 10:30 p.m. Feb. 14 that a tumor had been found. It was wrapped around his carotid artery.

"It was a total shock," said Martin's father, Chris Thiele, who lost his mother to cancer. "But we knew what the problem was."

He said for a long time, Martin had trouble sleeping and eating.

Doctors needed to get rid of the tumor and clear the tissue around it.

The teenager was sent to see specialists in Augusta, Ga., for his initial treatments. He did not like being stuck in a hospital four hours away from friends and his twin brother, Mason. It was a hard time for his family.

After the parents heard about LoDuca during a trip to the emergency room, he took over Martin's care.

"He is a terrific doctor," said Martin's mother. "We are blessed to have him here."

Martin said he has good days and bad. There has been a lot of nausea and fatigue.

The first round of chemotherapy lasted a year and got good results. He took a few months off from the treatment and now receives the medication through a port that is inserted under his skin. It is a lower grade medication than before.

Martin's mother said chemotherapy has worn out her son's body, but he does not complain.

"He has handled it about as well as someone can," said his father.

Martin has also received radiation treatment. "We have been ganging up on the bad cells," LoDuca said.

Martin's mother believes treatments have gone well.

LoDuca said that the survival rate for children with cancer is better than for adults because their bodies have not been subjected to the natural abuse of someone older.

He also said children are more "compliant" about a doctor's instructions.

The doctor said 80 percent of children treated for cancer survive for at least five years.

One big problem of chemotherapy is long-term effects that the treatments can have. As adults, those who have had cancer as a child, may develop liver disease, memory problems or a lack of sensation in their limbs,

"That is why we make sure not to overdo the medication," LoDuca said. "We use just what is needed."

Martin is active but not as active as he would like to be.

"I hate it that I can only go to class for about half a day, and I can't really do anything physical," said Martin.

A big thrill for Martin came in the spring when he was named an honorary Miracle Rider as Scott Ressmeyer and 11 other motorcyclists drove through 48 states to raise money for the Children's Miracle Network. During a photograph session, Martin even got to wear the black outfit the riders always wear.

Despite the rough treatments, Martin is feeling confident about his future.

"I feel like I am making improvement and I am going to beat this cancer," he said.

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