KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The scar is still red, but it isn't big. It runs down the front of Parker Fleeman's right ear, curls under the lobe and back up behind.
That scar marks the quiet 10-year-old as a skin cancer survivor.
As part of Sporting Kansas City's Victory Project, kids who have faced – or still face – fights with cancer are honored before home games at Children's Mercy Park. Parker was Sunday's special guest for Sporting's 2-1 victory over Orlando City SC.
The moment – with his picture on the scoreboard, his name announced over the public address system and the Cauldron supporters section chanting his name – was both celebration and reminder; Sunday was Sporting's first home game since MLS and Neutrogena announced the “Choose Skin Health” joint campaign for Skin Cancer Awareness month.
For Parker, a fourth-grader from the suburb of Lenexa, Kansas, it started last fall with a mole, near his right earlobe, that kept growing and bleeding.
“His football helmet – we thought it was just rubbing it and making it bleed,” his mother, Aimee, told MLSsoccer.com during the family's visit to Sporting's training session on Saturday. “We thought, 'No big deal. We'll just get it taken off,' and right after Christmas, we got the phone call that they sent it to two labs, just to be sure, but it was officially melanoma.”
Parker isn't a soccer player. Both of his sports – football and baseball – require headgear that keeps off the sun.
“He's never had a sunburn,” his father, Kyle, said. “We always keep the sunscreen on. We've been proactive –“
Aimee cut in.
“But he's always been fair, like me, and I guess he just got my genes. I never had a problem with it.”
Parker was subdued about the diagnosis, his parents said – but it hit Aimee especially hard, and with good reason: Her grandfather died of skin cancer, albeit of a different sort.
“I was scared,” she said. “I kind of had to pull over and cry a little bit, and then call my husband and say, 'I think this is what I just heard.'”
Melanoma, which is usually related to intense short-term UV exposure, is not the most common skin cancer – but with more than 10,000 fatalities per year in the U.S., it is the deadliest of the types of skin cancers.
“It was like a one-in-one-million deal, they said, for kids his age to end up with that,” Kyle said. “It was just kind of a fluke deal, but we caught it, so it didn't have a chance to spread.”
That's the one good thing – if “good thing” and “cancer” can be made to fit in the same sentence – about melanoma: If it's caught early, as Parker's was, it is among the most treatable of cancers.
He underwent surgery on Jan. 18 and, while he still has to have follow-up visits for life, and still faces the possibility of more surgery at the site of the mole, the prognosis is good.
“They nailed it,” Aimee said. “The lymph nodes were clear, so that's good. He just has to keep going back for checkups with the dermatologist, the oncologist, and he has one more with the surgeon.”
Parker sees an oncologist with Children's Mercy Hospital, with whom Sporting partner in the Victory Project. That's how his family got linked up with the MLS side, and how they came to be attending their first soccer game ever on Sunday.
“It's an amazing thing for these kids,” Kyle said on Saturday. “They're going through some of the toughest times in their lives. My daily goal is if I can make someone's day a little better, then it's worth it. These guys are putting smiles on kids' faces, and it's just an amazing deal, what they're doing with these kids.”
The whole family – including Parker's sister, Alexis, and one of his close friends – was all smiles at halftime on Sunday in the Victory Suite at Children's Mercy Park.
“It was pretty emotional,” Kyle said. “It was really exciting to see the group down below us chanting his name – everything they did for us, having him up on the scoreboard and everything. It was really cool to see the families, the kids, everything. It was an amazing deal.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.