While starting high school carries with it the burden of new beginnings, Bohemia resident Marina Duszak, at age 14, was faced with what she thought might be the end of her running career—a passion she had since childhood. During a track meet, Marina experienced trouble breathing and shortness of breath that she had never had before, and when the symptoms persisted for over two weeks, her doting mother, Patty, knew it was serious. Patty took her daughter for extensive blood work with both her pediatrician and Good Samaritan Hospital. “Marina had never been sick before—never—even as a baby, so I knew this was something serious with the pain she was in,” she said.
Mother’s instinct knew best and within two weeks, the grave diagnosis came in: acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The description and background information for the condition is not one any person reading on a computer screen can get through without feeling a strong sense of somberness. It is a particularly rapidly progressing form of leukemia, where there is a problem with the bone marrow (spongy tissue within bones) producing excessive amounts of lymphocytes (white blood cells). Briefly, an error in the bone marrow cells’ DNA tells white blood cells to continue dividing, and thus, develop abnormally, where a healthy cell would stop dividing and eventually die off. This excess of white blood cells crowds the system and impedes healthy cells from functioning. As acute lymphoblastic leukemia is the most common blood cancer in children, extensive research and treatment has thankfully provided parents and young cancer patients with hope, as the prognosis is normally positive when detected early.
Marina’s symptoms were textbook in the flu-like afflictions she felt and the overall weakness and nausea. A seasoned athlete, Marina was not one to dawdle on tiredness, but this fatigue was frightening to her mother and doctor. Both Patty and Marina were in anguish, asking fate why this was happening to them and what to do.
“My biggest fear was that I wouldn’t be able to run anymore. But then I overcame that worry by promising myself that I would not let this stop my life,” Marina said of her first thoughts after her diagnosis.
Determined to be true to her daughter’s ambitious goal of having a normal life, Patty, with the support of the medical team treating Marina, allowed her to attend school regularly and undergo treatment in the afternoon and evenings. In the beginning, Marina chose to only tell her closest friends, fearing being an object of pity, but slowly she started to share her story and was overwhelmed at the community’s support of her struggle and her fight to overcome the barriers the sickness placed on her.
“I wanted to act as normal as possible, not look any different, or act any different. Being sick, it was a high goal to feel normal,” Marina said of this time in her life.
Following a successful treatment cycle, Marina was determined to give back to the NYU Winthrop Cancer Center for Kids in Mineola that had saved her life. She organized a toy drive and auction to benefit the children who were now in the same position she had been in only a short time ago. Two fundraisers she spearheaded for the Make-A-Wish Foundation totaled over $40,000. Patty often shares the fundraisers of other families suffering from grave ailments on her Facebook page with heartfelt pleas for donations from friends.
Most recently, Marina has taken on another special project for charity, designing Christmas ornaments (selling for $1 each) so that she can grant wishes through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. When Marina’s wish was granted, she chose to go to Alaska, as she is a dog lover and wanted to experience dogsledding in person. Her own dog, Nala, helped her through the treatments and doubts. Being surrounded by huskies and malamutes following an Alaskan cruise, Marina had the experience of a lifetime sledding in the snow-capped wilds of the last American frontier.
Graduating Connetquot High School in 2018, Marina is a now a sophomore at Albany College of Pharmacology, another wish of sorts, as she was inspired by a pharmacist during her treatment days.
“The pharmacist at the Cancer Center was just so engaging and involved; it really inspired me to go into the medical profession, and studying pharmacology has truly validated me,” she added.
Marina, who has never stopped running since her diagnosis, will be celebrating another milestone in March: running the New York City Half Marathon with the full support of her family, community, and herself.