Adena native plans cross-country trek for melanoma awareness

[Note: This article appeared in the Steubenville Herald-Star.]

It’s sheer coincidence that Adena native Kevin Madzia’s 4,200-mile cross-country bicycle trip begins on June 20, Father’s Day.

But it’s no accident that he’s riding through 13 states and Ontario, Canada, to raise funds for melanoma research and to generate more awareness about the deadly form of skin cancer that claimed the life of his father, George Madzia, who died in November 2002 at the age of 62.The 39-year-old Pittsburgh resident, also the son of Sandy Madzia of Adena, will begin his coast-to coast Miles for Melanoma journey in Seattle and nine weeks later on Aug. 21 arrive at his final destination – Gloucester, Mass.

Before it’s all said and done, the 1983 graduate of Buckeye West High School hopes to raise $10,000 toward melanoma research and experience what will likely be a summer of 2004 adventure like no other.

A self-employed software engineer, Madzia (pronounced Mad’s Eye) became involved in this undertaking after surfing the Internet to learn more about melanoma, a form of skin cancer that affects the cells responsible for producing pigment or coloring in the skin. While little is known about what causes these cells to be cancerous, a major risk factor is thought to be excessive exposure to sunlight, especially if a person has had severe sunburns as a child. Although there’s no cure for melanoma, the disease is highly preventable and can be treated if detected early.

Madzia’s pursuit of information in early 2003 led him to Steve Farrell, a marathon runner and melanoma survivor who ran the New York City Marathon in November 2002 as a way to proactively make sense of his illness. In the process, Farrell started the Miles for Melanoma program in cooperation with the Melanoma Research Foundation in New Jersey, a volunteer-run organization that supports melanoma research in the form of research grants to top investigators.

Through this program, Farrell has encouraged and made it easier for other athletes to raise funds and awareness for melanoma, according to Madzia, who came across another Internet site called Coast-to-Coast Community Challenge in the fall of 2003 that inspired him further.

The Coast-to-Coast Community Challenge is organized by Cycle America, a bicycle touring company that helps bicyclists participate in the cross-country tour while raising money for the charity of their choice.

As someone who’s always liked to bicycle, and who had taken up the sport seriously five years ago and been in competitions, Madzia figured why not cycle for melanoma.

“To my knowledge I am the first person to be involved with the Miles for Melanoma program as a cycling rather than a running event,” Madzia said. He’s also the first person to participate in the Coast-to-Coast Community Challenge to choose melanoma research as a cause, one now near and dear to his heart because of his father.

It was the spring of 2000 when a mole on George Madzia’s chest was diagnosed. “I had hardly ever heard of it before,” Sandy said of melanoma, a diagnosis that surprised the family.

Although George was fine for a year after initial surgery, a pea-sized knot appeared in the area of the scar. The cancer was back. “When it returned, he had Interferon injections for a year,” Sandy explained, but George’s condition progressively worsened. “His liver was full of tumors. There was nothing they could do,” she said, stating one of the myths about melanoma is people confuse it with nonmelanoma skin cancer that starts in the skin cells but doesn’t spread to other parts of the body. “With melanoma, it can get into your organs,” she said.

“He was always very healthy all his life,” she said of her husband, who operated a service station in Adena that posed the most serious health risk before the cancer. A fire at the business trapped him inside, leaving him with burns over almost half of his body. He spent a month recuperating in West Penn Hospital’s burn unit. That was in 1978.

Madzia described his father as a man regarded as helpful through his work and in the community, “someone to be counted on.” He grew up in Adena, was a member of the Lions Club and organized an annual golf tournament for the people of Adena or former residents. He was active in St. Casimir’s Catholic Church and loved his family, which also includes his son and daughter-in-law, Jeff and Marianne Madzia of St. Clairsville, and their two children, Juliana, now 9, and Alex, 5.

Soft-spoken and caring, George Madzia became an advocate for people to have suspicious-looking moles checked out by their doctor, a practice Kevin has since adopted. Kevin and his mother said George often would come from work at the service station and joke that his day had included “three oil changes, two brake jobs and three mole checks.”

Madzia and his mother emphasized the disease is highly preventable and can be treated if caught early.

So far, Madzia has raised about $3,500 toward his $10,000 goal with $1,500 of that the fruit of a wine tasting event organized by his mother, an employee of the Jefferson County Prevention and Recovery Board. It was held Nov. 22, 2003, at the Mount Pleasant Inn, three days before the anniversary of George’s death.

Anyone who would like to donate toward the cause has two options to make tax-deductible contributions. Checks can be made out to Melanoma Research Foundation and mailed to Madzia at 516 Grandview Ave., Pittsburgh, Pa., 15211, or people can make donations, including with credit cards, through the Web site he created at http://www.miles4melanoma.com

Madzia is no stranger to bicycles and neither was his family, which would go on bicycle rides together as far as 20 to 25 miles. Five years ago, Madzia got back into riding seriously and races occasionally.

He is on a racing team through a club called Sette Nove.

The Allegheny Cycling Association organizes races in the spring and summer which he participates in and five times he has done the 150-mile MS (Multiple Sclerosis) 150, a two-day ride from Pittsburgh to Lake Erie.

He’ll do that one again this year – the weekend before he takes on the 4,200-mile challenge.

Madzia has a relative diagnosed with MS and will make that trip as an awareness gesture but not a fund-raising effort.

In preparation for the longer trip, Madzia worked indoors during the winter on a stationary bike trainer and as the weather broke, has averaged about 100 miles a week of riding. He also has participated with friends in stair-climbing workouts at the Cathedral of Learning, an academic building on the University of Pittsburgh campus in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh. It involves more then 700 steps to the 36th floor.

“We get together once a week and climb 36 floors five or six times,” he said.

“I’m riding as much as I can, too” Madzia said, noting he hopes to up his weekly mileage to 200 miles between now and the time he flies to Seattle to see friends and then attends an orientation on the campus of Washington University on June 19.

So far, Madzia is one of about 20 bicyclists making the cross-country trip, which will involve about four to five hours of riding each day or 75 miles. His road bike is a Mongoose Bosbert that he bought in July 2001.

“We’ll have trip leaders riding with us and vans will carry our luggage,” Madzia explained.

An entourage also will have any bicycle repair parts, for instance, that might be needed along the way.

Meals will be provided and overnight accommodations will range from tents to school gymnasiums.

The trip itself costs $4,000, which Madzia is providing himself as all money donated will go exclusively to the foundation.

“They tell us to prepare for anything,” he said as the group will likely be exposed to a variety of weather conditions, both hot and cold.

Although Madzia’s trip won’t bring him anywhere near the Tri-State Area, he has had requests from people at other points along the way express that they would like to meet him. They are either melanoma patients or their family members he has communicated with on the Internet.

To document the trip, Mazdia will keep his digital camera handy and keep a journal, sending along parts of it periodically either electronically if able or by regular mail so updates can be posted on his Web site for those interested in tracking his progress along the route.

When Mazdia reaches Gloucester, he’ll be greeted by his mother and brother and anticipates a celebration as well with friends from college. Madzia gradated from Carnegie Mellon University with a bachelor’s degree in computer science.

Madzia expects the trip will be a memorable slice of his life.

“It’ll probably be more of a mental challenge than a physical challenge but I expect it to be inspirational in lots of different ways, to telling my story, to seeing great scenery and hearing others’ stories,” he said.

His mother is confident he’ll be successful.

“I’m really proud of Kevin,” she said.

“And I know George would be tremendously proud, too.”

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