Victory Over Cancer Inspires Breathtaking Journey
By Lauren McFaul // April 15, 2012
(Images For SpaceCoastDaily.com)
BREVARD COUNTY • COCOA BEACH, FLORIDA – An online folder for the journal of the Sunny Cyclers contains evocative images.
In one, a bicyclist at dawn balances on an ebb tide, along a narrow tract of reflected light where the beach is no longer ocean, but not yet part of land.
In another image, two women pause with bikes loaded with gear, at Mile Marker 0, at Cape Reinga, where New Zealand’s northernmost point crooks a finger into turbulent oceans. The image was captured on a mid-January day.
‘Te Rerenga Wairua,’ the ancient Maori people called Cape Reinga or “’The Leaping-place of the Spirits.” Their two-month trek ended March 12 at The Bluffs on South Island, more than 1,500 miles away.
Seems fitting.for Cocoa Beach resident Mikki Kragelund, who is caught midair in one of the photos an exuberant jump. The words “Choose to be happy” are scratched in the sand.
Kragelund, 26, is celebrating her freedom from melanoma skin cancer.
She joined her friend Nina Oosterveer, 24, to cycle the length of New Zealand to raise $5,000 for the World Skin Cancer Foundation, a not-for-profit group formed in 2005 by Merritt Island dermatologist Jeannine Stein of Osler Medical and Adam Saal,of SaalGood Public Relations in Ormond Beach.
Doggedly pedaling up Mt. Mount Ngauruhoe, the backdrop for Mount Doom in the cinema adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings), the two cyclists prevailed despite flat tires, numb fingers, epic face-plants and sore backsides.
“We have had a few pretty emotional and inspiring experiences,” Kragelund related in an e-mail from New Zealand.
Coasting through farmlands patterned like aboriginal art, the two women met their fundraising goal early on.
“We jumped around like two school girls,” Kragelund said.
In all they had quite an adventure, with the ride winding through the North and South Islands of New Zealand.
The genesis for the Sunny Cyclers trek was the Queenstown waterfront restaurant The Flame Grill, where the two co-workers fell into the ‘Kiwi Groove’ and their grand design solidified.
In mere weeks they had picked up sponsors like the Brazz bar; NZSki, camping gear from Equip Outdoors, airfare courtesy of The Flame Grill owners and many co-workers from the restaurant that donated all their tips from working on New Year’s Eve.
New Zealand newspapers avidly followed Kragelund’s story. They reported how Mikki’s uncle, California dermatologist William Heimer, found a suspicious anomaly on Mikki, but his warning didn’t register with the UCF senior.
Frustrated by her procrastination, Heimer booked her an appointment and it was none too soon. Kragelund had Stage 3 melanoma, which metastisizes into internal organs. Some 14 biopsies and a surgery later, she was now a cancer survivor.
All of that resonated for New Zealand and Australian residents, with large populations of fair-skinned people in an often-shadeless land.
“I cannot explain in words how strong the sun is here.” Kragelund said.
Australia’s ‘Sun Smart’ program has encouraged sunscreen use since the 1980s, but skin cancers remain epidemic there. Two out of three Aussies are likely to develop them by age 70.
“Most people are aware of the danger,” said Oosterveer. “There are sun shelters placed over the playgrounds. You will find free sun screen bottles in a lot of resaturants and cafes as well.”
As native of Holland, Oosterveer never sunburned before arriving in Australia three years ago.
But chemicals in commercial sunscreens are dangerous, said Charlie Richards, owner of Absolutely Natural, a Melbourne, skin care company that also sponsoed Kragelund.
Richards said he became aware of the dangers of synthetic sunscreen ingredients in the 1990s.
“It took about two years to develop a natural alternative”, he said. “And a lot of of research.”
Studies at The Institute of Pharmacology and Toxicology in Zurich label these chemicals “endocrine disruptors.” They mimic estrogens and when combined with nitrite preservatives, may damage DNA.
Critics contend such claims are exaggerated.
“At 16-years-old if you would have told me I would be diagnosed with Melanoma in the next eight years, I might have thought about it for a minute, but I think it would have been in one ear and out the other,” Kragelund said. “I can honestly say that now, even though I am fair-skinned and pale, I am the most comfortable in my own skin that I have ever been. If I can get through to just one 16-year-old girl (or guy) and make them feel something similar, then this whole thing has been worthwhile.”
Kragelund may do even better than that.
As weary legs pushed through the final 20 miles or so on March 14, she had a chance to reflect on what she calls “‘the best experience of my life.”
She said, “I would love to go back to work for Life is Good, or even slinging beer and ribs at Slow ‘n Low BBQ in Cocoa Beach, however at this point I am not sure what’s in the cards for me.”
In the immediate months ahead, as long as she’s in the neighborhood, she plans to explore a bit of Australia.
Beyond that, who knows?
“I do know that I will continue to support and work, volunteer, with World Skin Cancer Foundation from wherever I am,” she said. “I know without question, I will stay involved in the movement to bring awareness (about) skin cancer. This venture has completely inspired me.”
She may make the ultimate payment forward too.
“I am also considering spending some time in my uncle’s practice out in California, to see if going back to school for dermatology is my next move,” Kragelund said.
But right then, final miles were to be savored, much like good company and windfall plums found by the side of the road.
Oosterveer’s mother had joined the trek near Greymouth for a passage through New Zealand’s ‘Southern Alps’ — a surreal landscape of glaciers and tropical vegetation.
Old friends in Queenstown offered shelter after rain, stiff headwinds and freezing temperatures slowed their progress substantially.
Friend and cyclist Giovanni “Super Italian” Sozio, who at age 26 is already a veteran of several lengthy cycling tours, bolstered flagging spirits and provided a campfire version of his mom’s homemade minestrone soup.
The trek was completed in under 60 days, Kragelund said.
“This last part was definitely been the most challenging, with some of the roughest weather and hardest climbs thus far,” Kragelund said.
Haast Pass rose 1,850 feet in less than two miles. Crown Range also included a climb peaking at 1,200 meters or 3,530 feet.
The journey’s end drew out sad emotions for Kragelund.
“It was the strangest feeling. If you would have asked me in the beginning what I anticipated to feel at the the end of this whole thing, my answer would have been completely different from how I actually felt. I thought I’d feel tired, sore, ready to be done, but instead I felt full of energy, like I still had the capacity and desire to keep going.
“For the first time, I felt an unfamiliar gratefulness for being diagnosed with melanoma,” she said. “I thought, ‘wow … it was a blessing.’ I would never wish it on anyone else, but at that moment, standing under the sign at Bluff, I realized that because of my experience with skin cancer, I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I have found something that I love and that I am passionate about and it has inspired me to continue doing my part to raise awareness. I looked across the road to see Nina laughing and hugging her Mom. I realized how grateful I was to share this experience with her and how much I loved her. I smiled. ‘This isn’t the end, I thought … I can keep doing this for the rest of my life’… and just like that all of the anxiety I had over reaching Bluff, lifted and I felt completely happy.”
Pledged donations continue to roll in, now well over $7,500 bound for the World Skin Cancer Foundation, with the final tally yet to come.
And who knows the final tally of Kragelund’s boundless enthusiasm — as perhaps it should be, when one, as such a young woman, has had such trials and such adventures.
“One of my favorite quotes,”‘ Kragelund said, is “Man travels in search of what he needs and returns home to find it. English philosopher George Moore observed this. I’m enjoying every moment I get to see or experience somewhere new in the world. But I love that Cocoa Beach is the place I get to return home to.”
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