It's Skin Cancer Awareness Week on OnMilwaukee.com, dedicated to the memory of our colleague, Tim Cuprisin, who died of melanoma last fall. Melanoma kills 9,100 Americans each year, but together, we can beat it. All week long, we're bringing you survivor stories, prevention plans and breakthroughs to make skin cancer a disease of the past. We've also set up a fund in memory of Tim and urge you to donate here. Skin Cancer Awareness Week is sponsored by the Dermatology Associates of Wisconsin. Enjoy the Milwaukee summer, but be safe and smart in the sun!
At 19, Oshkosh native Maggie Hill entered the Miss America organization to compete for the title of Miss Oshkosh and earn scholarship money for college. At 21, she would receive a piece of news that would change her life: a melanoma diagnosis.
"It was very, very shocking. My parents were in the room with me when they told us, and it was a conversation that none of us expected to have," said Hill. "None of us thought that skin cancer was even an issue. We kept thinking, 'Well, maybe it's a pre-cancerous something or other that they're concerned about,' and everything else."
Now 23, Hill can count herself among the lucky individuals who have fought skin cancer and won.
She attends college at UW-Green Bay, and she still competes through the Miss America organization. In fact, she recently won the title of Miss Southern Lakes this April. Her platform focuses on skin cancer prevention and sun safety, but her involvement with the cause goes back almost to the very beginning of her battle.
"I was diagnosed, and I was really mad, but something had to happen and something had to change. It just kind of flipped the switch," said Hill, who expressed her need to take charge not only for herself, but also for her parents. "I think, by seeing them, I tried to become the strong one."
Hill underwent eight surgeries over the course of 14 months, which also included regular blood tests and numerous doctor visits to monitor her condition and make sure the melanoma hadn't spread to other parts of her body.
"The first two removing the melanoma tissue were the most severe," she explained. "That's as far as my treatment has gone, thank goodness, so I haven't had to have any chemotherapy or radiation. It's just been surgeries, but they've ranged from smaller surgeries that last about an hour to about five hours.
"When I was diagnosed I was taking a summer school course at UW-Green Bay, and I had two surgeries at once when it first started. They were both on my leg, and my legs were so swollen from the surgeries I couldn't walk on them. My poor mom actually came up and lived with me in my apartment in Green Bay, and she would go with me to my classes and she would have a bucket of ice bags so that on my breaks I could go and ice my legs. She stayed with me the entire time. I would not have been able to do it without her helping and my dad helping from home. They were amazing."
Between surgeries and class work, she also threw herself into volunteer work with numerous groups to help educate students and others about skin health.
"Almost as soon as I started walking again (after the first surgeries) I started working at different organizations that I could go talk with. I had so much time during the first initial recovery that I just felt like I had to be doing something. I couldn't do much, so once I was done and once I was capable, I just hit the ground running."
Her dedication helped her reach more than 2,500 students by the time she earned her title as Miss Southern Lakes, which encompasses most of the Burlington/Lake Geneva area. In addition to continuing to speak to students in her area, Hill has also volunteered for events across the state and currently interns with the American Cancer Society as part of her presidency with the UW-Green Bay chapter of Colleges Against Cancer.
On top of that, Hill also has a few projects of her own in the works to help further the fight against melanoma and other skin cancers.
"I'm working on developing a run/walk for melanoma awareness. I'm really passionate about exercising and running, so I've been trying to set that up," she said. "I'm also working on legislating for the law for tanning to be changed in Wisconsin. Currently you can be 16 years old and you can tan in a tanning bed. I'm trying to get Wisconsin to change their law to 18."
Most importantly, though, Hill is still committed to talking with students, patients and survivors – both in her community and those she represents through her title – about the importance of sun safety and overall skin health.
"I was really naive when it came to skin care. I tanned frequently. I really had every misconception you could have about the sun and the health of your skin," she said. "I didn't know what was going on, so there are tons of other people who don't know, as well.
"There have been numerous times when I've been talking to middle schools or high schools, and I have a couple of students raise their hands and say, 'I know exactly what you're going through – I had that when I was 10, or when I was 14 years old.' When I hear those stories they always break my heart, because I had a very, very difficult time handling it at 21. I can't even fathom having to deal with it at such a young age. I always congratulate them and stress, 'This is a big deal! I don't know how you did it, and you are awesome for doing it.'"
Contrary to her natural state of being, Renee Lorenz is a total optimist when it comes to Milwaukee. Since beginning her career with OnMilwaukee.com, her occasional forays into the awesomeness that is the Brew City have turned into an overwhelming desire to discover anything and everything that's new, fun or just ... "different."
Expect her random musings to cover both the new and "new-to-her" aspects of Miltown goings-on, in addition to periodically straying completely off-topic, which usually manifests itself in the form of an obscure movie reference.