By Danika Kent

In the fall of 2010, 13-year-old Melissa McHann sat in a doctor’s office in Central Minnesota. For two years prior, the vision in her right eye had inexplicably dwindled to nothing. She, along with her family, was looking for answers.

Since her first ride on Little Red, Melissa has come a long way - and she isn't slowing down! She is pictured with the saddles she won on Tequila, Cookie, and Tejas during her first year in the NBHA. Photo by Kay Eppenauer.

            “She had pain in the right eye, and the vision was originally changing every six months, then four months, then two months. I went way out on a limb and asked the doctor, ‘How about a brain tumor?’” Melissa’s mother recalls.

            The ophthalmologist quickly dismissed it, but Dana’s fears were not so easily dispelled.

            “Two months later, we took her to another doctor and the tumor was so profound and so huge, that doctor diagnosed her in about 30 seconds. It had been misdiagnosed for two years, unfortunately,” she explains.

            By that time, Melissa’s tumor, an optic pathway glioma, had grown to rival the size of her eyeball and was constricting the blood flow to and the vision of Melissa’s right eye. Dr. Jerome Polland of the Crosby Eye Clinic referred Melissa’s case to Dr. Christopher Moertel at the University of Minnesota Children’s Hospital, Minneapolis, Minn., who ultimately connected the McHanns with Dr. Jeffrey Murray – “the best pediatric brain oncologist on the planet,” according to Dana – at Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas.

            Tequila Rose and Texas

            The treatment regimen would entail intensive chemotherapy and relocation from their Crosby, Minn., home, opening a new chapter in their lives, in more ways than one.

            “We knew early on in the process that we were going to move,” Dana says. “When Dr. Moertel told us we needed to go to Fort Worth, we thought, ‘Wow, Texas, cool!’ Melissa said, ‘When we move to Texas, I want to learn how to barrel race. I don’t want to do English anymore.’”

            Melissa had developed a love of horses early in life when, while living in Montana, her mother rehabbed U.S. Cavalry-bred Morgan horses that were discharged from their roles in the Amish community.

            “I would throw her on the back of one of my broodmares and go do chores,” Dana reminisces. “But she never learned how to formally ride until she was 12, in Crosby.”

When the McHanns moved to Outing, Minn., and just prior to the diagnosis, Melissa’s parents leased a horse for her to get her start in the 4-H horse project. She quickly proved her natural ability, and her parents purchased her first “real” horse, an unregistered Quarter Horse mare named Tequila Rose from Sherry Rocholl at Black Diamond Equine Center, Crosby, Minn.

            “I’ve had her since the beginning. I did everything on Tequila – dressage, jumping, English equitation, Western pleasure, showmanship, halter, the game events – all of those different things. Sometimes we’d do them all in the same day,” Melissa says.

            “After I got diagnosed, I decided I just wanted to do the speed events. I didn’t like the judges; sometimes they’re really partial. I wanted to let the clock speak for itself. Tequila wasn’t trained to do barrels at all, though; it was just me playing with her. So when I moved to Texas, I really had no idea what I was doing. No one really wanted to help me because they were afraid if I fell, I would get hurt because I was on chemo.”

            But with the support of her parents, and as Dana says, “by the grace of God,” Melissa persisted and made a winning barrel horse out of Tequila.

Melissa and Nicksstreakinharley (Harley, pictured) have been nicknamed "the Comeback Kids." After she nursed an injured deep digital flexor tendon back to health, he returned to the arena better than ever - in time to carry Melissa through proton radiation therapy.

            “I had Tequila the entire time I went through chemo,” Melissa says. Incidentally, when the McHanns relocated to Abilene, Texas, in April 2012, they boarded their horses at Lone Star Stables – owned by Angela Ganter, a barrel racer who, at that time, was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer.

            “She had a way better attitude than I did,” Ganter says of her first encounter with Melissa. “When I got cancer, I was mad. I was mad they were going to take me away from Jackie after she already lost her dad. But Melissa is real at peace with God, more so than anybody I’ve ever known. She rides four or five horses every day and just absolutely has the best attitude of any human being I’ve ever seen.”

            From Angela and her daughter, Jackie, the McHanns bought My Mey Command.

            “When we bought Cookie,” Dana recalls, “we thought, ‘Now we’ve got a real barrel horse. Melissa’s really got to figure this out.’ So we took her to Josey’s.”

            Throughout that first year, Melissa would go to five Josey clinics on five different horses.

            “The reason we kept going back was because all of the instructors were really pleasant, and they have this language that anybody can understand,” she says. “We love Martha and R.E. for how positive they are. Terry Thomas is one of the instructors there, he kind of became my barrel racing dad.”

            That respect goes both ways, as Thomas let on in a recent interview.

            “She’s my hero, that’s for sure,” she said of Melissa. “She’s just tough. The first time I met her, they were late getting here because she’d had chemo. She got here at 8 or 9 o’clock at night, and she was sick as a dog, but no one would ever know it.

“She’s always trying to figure out a way, and she doesn’t want you to sugar coat it for her. At the reunion, she’d hit the first barrel in one of the runs. It was getting kind of dark; she couldn’t see it. We arranged it the rest of the week for her to run during the day. She’d tried to turn her horse around and run left some, and then she said she was going to put on her big girl panties and go right. I don’t know how she handles what she handles, because a lot of people would quit.”

            Cookie and carboplatin

            Between the University of Minnesota Children’s Hospital and Cook Children’s, Melissa went through 52 rounds of chemotherapy. Despite a myriad of side effects, including the nagging nauseousness, fatigue, a depressed immune system and a developing allergy to the anticancer drug, carboplatin, Melissa continued to ride.

            “I learned how to do my barrel racing on chemo, mostly on Cookie,” she explains. “There were days I didn’t want to get out of bed, but my mom would tell me, ‘You’ve got to go ride, you’ve got a barrel race tomorrow.’ So I’d go ride both horses.”

            She insists that on an emotional, mental, and spiritual level, her horses have provided the unparalleled therapy.

            “I think a lot of the reasons people get so depressed when they go through this stuff is they have nothing to fight for and they sit on the couch. I had something to go out and live for. I had my horses. I always felt better after I rode.”

            She believes that her horses have stepped up when she needs them most.

“I know they understand. One time, I had chemo Thursday night and we had a barrel race Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I didn’t run until 1 a.m., and I literally just sat there on Cookie and she ran a perfect pattern, and that was the best run we ever made. Everyone calls her Cookie Superhorse, and she definitely is.”
            Cookie, now 24 years of age, was retired from the barrel racing arena this year, but is backed up by a herd of protégés that Melissa has carefully selected over the past few years.

“Most people were thinking that she never should have started barrel racing,” Dana says. “Let this kid live! Whether she has two years or 100, she’s going to do whatever she wants to do.”

            Tejas and proton therapy

            The chemo protocol that began in December 2010 ended in February 2012. In September 2013, however, the McHanns learned that the tumor was growing again. Melissa and her support system, including family, friends, horses, and a network of doctors, shifted gears.

Melissa and Tejas in winning form at the 2014 Elite Youth Extravaganza. Photo by James Phifer.

“Our friend in Minnesota, Sally McCollister, is married to the Chief of Surgery at Cuyuna Regional Medical Center in Crosby. Howard ended up with cancer and he was at the Mayo Clinic getting treatment. When he found out her tumor came back, he wanted to look into it. We gave him all of her stuff, and Stan and I researched at the same time. We didn’t bother him, but the day we called and made an appointment was the same day he emailed and said we needed to go to MD Anderson and see Dr. Mahajan about the proton therapy. We knew then that was what she was supposed to do,” Dana explains.

“I guess God’s not done with us yet, we have a lot of refining left to do. It’s another step, and another step, and another step,” she adds.

Melissa began proton radiation therapy with Dr. Mahajan at MD Anderson in Houston, Texas, in December of 2013, concluding in February of this year.

“Radiation was a lot easier than chemo, for sure.” says the ever-optimistic Melissa. “On chemo, I would feel sick to my stomach and out of it. With the radiation, I get really light-headed and feel like I’m going to pass out if I’m in the sun and heat too much, because that’s just more radiation on top of radiation.”

At the recent Elite Extravaganza in Waco, Texas, it was 7-year-old, 16.2-hand Guys Texan (“Tejas”) who stepped up to fill the shoes of Cookie Superhorse.

“I was light-headed in the alleyway because I get really hot, really fast because of the radiation, and he went in there and did his job and I just sat there. He takes care of me,” she said.

Future and faith

Unfortunately, more bad news was to come. A scan in June revealed that the tumor is growing yet again. Pending a follow-up scan to confirm the recent results, the most likely next step is either a radical brain surgery, which would require a team of brain and ocular plastic surgeons, or more intensive chemotherapy.

“I thought, ‘Well, here we go again!’” Melissa says. “I was a little surprised, but not a whole lot. Of course, I was upset, but in the long run, there’s just not a whole lot I can do about it. I just have to trust that God has a plan and let it go. My mom and dad raised me that way.”

Melissa’s case is one that is extremely rare. Less than one percent of the childhood population has neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF-1), a disorder that causes tumors to form on nerve tissue. Less than one percent of those cases have an optic pathway glioma. The missing link is that Melissa does not have NF-1, and that has doctors scratching their heads.

“I’m ‘supposed to have NF,’ but I don’t have it, so they can’t explain why I have the tumor,” she shrugs.

She doesn’t dwell on it. Instead, she has graduated from high school a year early, taking dual credits since 10th grade. She has her sights set on med school at Texas Tech and a future in professional rodeo.

“I’m a firm believer that God won’t give you more than you can handle,” she says. “I pray about it all the time. I want to do His mission, His work, and learn what I need to learn from this experience.”

Her mother suspects that Melissa’s strong faith and fearless nature are gifts from above.

            “She’s got an awesome faith base,” remarks Dana. “There are days you just want to fall apart, and Melissa is there like, ‘Mom, God’s got a plan.’ And He does.”

“I just want people to know that there is always hope out there and to never give up,” Melissa adds. “I trust that God has a plan and has a purpose, and really, it’s out of my hands. I let it go.”

            Danika Kent is managing editor of Barrel Horse News. Email comments on this article to [email protected]

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