Although oral cancer has taken away the lives of those who have accomplished great things, attention must be paid to those who were taken away before they ever got the chance to reach their goals. High school track star Sean Marsee was one of these.
Sean Marsee was a very popular and respected athlete at his high school in Ada, Oklahoma. A fierce competitor, Sean had won 28 medals at high school track meets in his career. Needless to say, he was in near-perfect physical shape.
He had always taken excellent care of his body, watching his diet, lifting weights, even running five miles a day six months of the year. He didn't smoke or drink, but Sean was a frequent user of so-called "safe" forms of tobacco, such as chewing tobacco and snuff. Starting at age 12, Sean began to "dip" habitually.
In truth, of course, it wasn't a habit - it was an addiction. At one point he was going through a can of snuff every day and a half. Sean's mother, a registered nurse, quickly became aware of the problem. Her lectures on the dangers of tobacco fell on deaf ears, however, as her son simply didn't believe her warnings of cancer and disease. In his world of track meets and high school, many of his teammates dipped, and even the coach was aware of the habit and didn't seem to take it seriously. He pointed out to his mother how high profile athletes both used and marketed smokeless tobacco. They were professionals, something Sean himself aspired to be - if they dipped, how could dipping be dangerous?One day, however, everything changed. Sean came home and told his mother, "Mom, my tongue hurts." He then showed her a red sore the size of a half-dollar on his tongue, with a hard white core. His mother took him to Dr. Carl Hook, a throat specialist, who recommended a biopsy. Sean was stunned. " I didn't know snuff could be that bad for you," Sean said. Dr. Hook recommended removing that part of Sean's tongue. Sean was silent for a moment, and then asked, "Can I still run in the state track meet this weekend? And graduate next month?" Dr. Hook agreed, and scheduled the surgery for after Sean's graduation.
On May 16th, Dr. Hook performed the operation. More of Sean's tongue had to be removed than was originally planned, and the biopsy results tested positive for cancer. Sean was scheduled to meet with a radiation therapist, but before therapy began, a newly swollen lymph node was found in Sean's neck. A discouraging sign that the cancer had spread. Sean's mouth sore had now led to neck surgery.
When it was recommended to the 18-year old that he undergo surgery to remove the lower jaw on the right side along with all lymph nodes, muscles, and blood vessels except his artery, Sean's mother began to cry. She knew him to be quite careful and concerned with his appearance. "There might be some sinking," explained the doctor, "but the chin should support the general planes of the face." After an agonizing ten minutes, Sean finally spoke up. "Not the jawbone. Don't take the jawbone." Plans were made to carry out the other parts of the procedure.
On June 20th, Sean underwent his second surgery, lasting eight hours. At his school, teachers and students assembled during their summer vacation to honor their school's most outstanding athlete. His track coach and his assistant late came to visit Sean and present their gift, a walnut plaque.
After five weeks of healing and radiation therapy, Sean responded well. His mood and body were recovering at a record pace. In October, however, Sean started having severe headaches, and a CAT scan revealed that the cancer had spread anew, around the bottom of his brain and down his back. In November, Sean began his third surgery -- the jawbone operation he had not wanted to have and much, much more.
Sean was home that Christmas, maintaining his optimism in the face of such horrible cancer, until January when he found new lumps in the left side of his cheek. The biopsy showed that they too were cancerous.
Even in the midst of this, one day Sean admitted to his mother that he still craved snuff. "I catch myself thinking," he said, "I'll just reach over and have a dip." He also believed that there was a reason for his illness, perhaps in having his story told to others, hopefully "keeping other kids from dying." Even near the end, when Sean became unable to speak, a friend asked him if there was anything he wanted to tell other young athletes. Sean took a pencil and wrote, "Don't dip snuff."
On February 25th, Sean passed away. His track star prowess did not find its zenith, but his bravery and sense of duty to others did.