Md. teen's death raises hope and awareness about skin cancer

Medical studies are underway to try and determine if adolescence could lead to melanoma in children.

LUTHERVILLE, Maryland (WUSA9)--There are medical studies underway trying to see if adolescence, with all its raging hormones, triggers children getting melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. One Maryland family believes their daughter's coming-of-age did play a role in her death.

Claire Wagonhurst was not a sun worshiper. She always wore sunscreen, had annual skin exams and never touched a tanning bed. But at the age of 14, she still developed melanoma. A cancer some people, doctors included, think only adults get.

MORE: Claire Marie Foundation

"If we had to lose Claire at the cusp of her beautiful life, with all the promise ahead of her, we just have to make sure that another family won't go through this pain," says Claire's mother, Marianne Banister.

There are two life lessons in this story.

"Nobody told us that when you turn 13 or 14 it's a risk possibly," says Banister.

When Claire Wagonhurst turned 14 in 2011, a mole on her ankle she'd had her whole life started to change. A doctor suggested they remove it. The next appointment? In three months. The phone call to her mom Marianne with the diagnosis? That came a month after that.

"All of a sudden we're told at the age of 14 that she has melanoma. Malignant melanoma. How could that possibly be?" asks Banister.

Banister, a former reporter and anchor, was used to digging for answers. But, this was the story of her life.

"And as I started looking into this, the month we went to her oncologist at Johns Hopkins he said it's rare but it's becoming less rare. Claire was one of three girls he told us he saw in one month. All 13 to 14 years all had a mole on the lower extremities that had become malignant.

"Nobody told us that congenital moles, the moles that they're born with are at greater risk, nobody told us, that adolescent melanoma looks differently than in the adult population."

With hindsight 20/20, Marianne says the combination of Claire's hormonal changes from hitting puberty, along with the lack of urgency to remove the mole may have combined to give Claire the 3-year fight of her life.

You won't see pictures of Claire sick. She wouldn't want to be remembered that way. Surgeries, chemo, needles, and through it all, that smile.

" I knew the moment I had to call my husband in October our lives her life would change and it was going to be a cloud on us the rest of our lives and it has been but she made it sunshine in between the clouds," says Marianne.

MORE: Melanoma Research Foundation

MORE: Pediatrics article on adolescent melanoma

"I spend a lot of time in here not a lot but at times I come sit here and I talk to her and just chat with her as much as I want to," says Claire's father, Rocky Wagonhust, as he stands in his youngest daughter's bedroom.

Claire's father shows us her room. In it, pictures ripped from fashion magazines, a picture of her older sister Hillary, the bright colors he says matched Claire's personality.

This brings us to life lesson number two: Live life like Claire.

"She never cried about it ever," says Banister.

Never cried, never dwelled, never complained. After high-dose chemo, she picked a dress that covered her scars and went out for New Year's Eve. After a skin graft on her leg left her on crutches, she went to a party.

"She's taught me to be positive in every situation and she was never upset about anything never complained about anything," says Claire's friend, Nina Sessler.

"Even the reminder of her makes you want to do better and live life like Claire," says another childhood friend, Kristen Marcotte.

Friends Kristen and Nina wear necklaces in Claire's memory. So does their entire class, 150 of them. Most never even knew she was sick. Claire created art, drew, painted. had big dreams, applied to colleges, got accepted, and lived life to the fullest.

Claire knew how precious time is, even though she never thought she'd have so little.

"Claire teaches us that there is beauty in every single day," says Banister. "That no matter your circumstances, you can have something wonderful. Something to laugh about something to be joyful for."

Tim Turnham, Executive Director of the Melanoma Research Foundation, tells WUSA9 making any definitive connection between hormones and adolescent melanoma is a long way off. Much more research needs to be done; however, there are suspicions.

Turnham says the two big takeaways for parents is if your child is born with a mole, or develops one in early age, be very vigilant about checking the mole regularly. Also, keep all children out of the sun as much as possible and always use sunscreen. "Blistering sunburns double the chances of someone getting melanoma in adulthood."

Banister also says, "Never let a doctor tell you that your child is too young to get melanoma.


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