BOCA RATON — McKenna Keith and her family had plenty to celebrate over the holidays.
The Florida State senior swimmer and St. Andrew’s School All-American alum was given a clean bill of health after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in July.
After undergoing chemotherapy at Lynn Cancer Institute near her home in Boca Raton, Keith will return to college in early January where she plans to finish her collegiate swimming career and graduate with her senior class.
“I can already say it’s the best Christmas ever because nothing can top my gift of life this year,” Keith said. “The results won’t matter to me, I will be happy enough to just be back in that pool again with my teammates.”
Keith was first diagnosed in Germany where she was staying with her boyfriend, Fynn Minuth, and his family while training with his club team. When she found “a strange lump” on her neck, she went to a doctor who told her to get an MRI.
“It was never even a thought in my mind that this was something serious,” Keith said. “The MRI pictures were up on the screen … something I didn’t need a translation for. All I could see was a huge lump on my neck about the size of an apple. When the doctor walked in, I could really tell something was wrong. Through a translation, and the help of Google, I found out I had cancer. The doctor said she didn’t know what the diagnosis was called in English so we translated it and found out it was lymphoma. I typed it into Google and all I had to read was ‘Lymphoma is a type of cancer …’ and my stomach dropped.”
Her boyfriend’s family provided her emotional support, but it was the doctor who gave her hope.
“I don’t remember much from that day,” she said, “but I do remember the most comforting and encouraging words from that doctor: ‘You are an athlete who knows how to fight. You have faced challenges in the pool your whole life. Now, you have a new challenge to face and you will fight the same way.’ Those words have stuck with me this entire process and I can’t wait to tell that doctor I just won the fight.”
The eight-hour flight home was “the longest of my life,” Keith said. The next three weeks were filled with endless doctor appointments, three surgeries and preparation tests for chemo.
“From the first chemo to the last, I tried to make myself feel as normal as possible,” Keith said. “It was hard seeing all my friends at school and feeling like I was missing out on my senior season, but that only gave me motivation to get through treatment and be able to swim in the senior meet in January.”
While undergoing treatment, Keith took two online classes because she wanted to graduate on time. She finished with a 4.0 GPA for the semester.
“The support from my family, friends, teachers, and coaches has kept me afloat and I can truly say I wouldn’t have made it through this journey without them by my side every step of the way,” she said. “From my roommates setting up a GoFundMe to surprise visits from friends throughout treatment, the support I’ve received is unbelievable. My faith in Christ has also kept me assured in His plan for me and has given me a will to fight. Having that crutch to lean on gave me hope when I felt there was nothing left in my tank.
“Overall, this journey has given me a new perspective on life and how precious every moment is. I like to think of this journey as a blessing in disguise because I have never been more grateful for my life and everyone in it than I am today. I now know exactly what I want to do after I graduate.”
Keith plans to attend an accelerated nursing program “so I can help others the way I was gracefully helped by my nurses,” she said.
When Keith got her final pet scan results, she waited until her dad got home from work to share the good news.
“I walked into the kitchen and said, ‘Dad, guess what? The cancer is gone.’ “
“I just lost it,” Michael Keith said. “I was crying like a baby, hugging her and praising God. It was incredibly overwhelming.”
Keith lettered in swimming and water polo for four years at St. Andrew’s in Boca Raton. She was a three-time All-American in the 200- and 400-yard freestyle relays and 400-yard medley relay.
She transferred to FSU last season after starting her collegiate career at South Carolina where she swam her freshman and sophomore seasons, competed in four events and had six Top 10 finishes during the regular season. As a freshman, she was the team’s top sprinter. She was named to the 2017 Winter SEC Academic Honor Roll.
After her FSU teammates learned of her diagnosis, they set up a GoFundMe account to raise money for her rent payments. She has a lease at her school apartment and was responsible for rent in addition to medical expenses. The page was shut down after raising more than enough money in three days.
Florida State head swim coach Neal Studd said Keith contacted him over the summer.
“She gave me a call and we talked about our swim camps where she was doing a great job,” Studd said. “She was the big sister at the camp. We talked for a few minutes and then she dropped the bomb on me. I couldn’t believe we had this whole conversation about other stuff before she told me. She never made it out to be this big dramatic thing.
“It’s one of those things you hope never happens to one of your kids,” Studd said. “Anyone who knows her knows how special and wonderful she is.”
Studd never filled her spot on the roster. She came to the Seminoles “Think Pink Weekend” at Morcom Aquatics Center in late October and talked to the team. Studd said she inspired them and played a role in their 161-139 victory over Arizona State to remain undefeated.
“It would be ridiculous not to give someone a chance, to give them another shot,” Studd said. “I know she has been doing some light work and swimming already. I want this to be fun for her. I want her to enjoy the process and see where it goes. When she gets back, I am not putting any stress on her, she doesn’t need any more stress in the world.”