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Relay sprints toward biggest prize: Cancer's cure

Grover family1 / 3
Kellie Burrows2 / 3
Wendy Larson3 / 3

Dozens of people began working on the 2009 Relay for Life, scheduled for March 27-28, shortly after last year's event ended.

The 2009 theme: "Game Show Relay, In Search of the Million-Dollar Prize -- A Cure."

The theme recognizes that this 12th annual American Cancer Society fundraiser pushes River Falls to the local collective fundraising total of $1,000,000. Last year's event raised $160,000; this year's goal is $176,500.

Each year, honorary chairpersons share stories from their unique personal journeys.

Caregiver Isaac Grover mourns

"In 2000, my late wife Rachael was diagnosed with Stage 2 melanoma," said Isaac Grover of River Falls. "It all started with two moles that were changing color. The oncologist removed them, and monitored her periodically without incident over the next five years...she was declared 'cancer free.'

"Fast forward seven years to when Rachael and I are expecting a baby girl. A month and a half before our baby's due date, Rachael felt a lump under her right arm.

"The doctors couldn't do any testing because she was still pregnant. Our daughter Makayla was born three weeks before her due date...Testing started in late November, and on December 5, 2007, her oncologist told me 'it was malignant.'

"So began a whirlwind of complicated medications, extensive tests, and frequent trips to medical facilities, including The Gatherings in Stillwater, a hospice-care facility where Rachael passed away on May 4, 2008.

"As Rachael's primary caregiver, to her I was a loving and supportive husband, frequent conversationalist, reader of novels and walking partner. To family, friends and the community I was the liaison with medical staff and the regular author on her CaringBridge Web site.

"From the time Rachael was diagnosed to when she passed away, I frequently experienced feelings of anger, frustration, aloneness, desperation, helplessness, and overall sadness that I was losing my wife, our daughter's mommy, and my best friend of 17 years.

"Through this difficult journey, both my wife and I have been and continue to be grateful for our friends and family, the United Methodist Church, River Falls Rotary and St. Croix Valley Rotaract, the River Falls Chamber of Commerce, the American Cancer Society for their education, and the entire community of River Falls, for your unwavering support during Rachael's cancer journey and after her passing."

Kellie Burrows' first exam brings shock

" of October 2008, I am a one-year breast cancer survivor," says Kellie Burrows of River Falls. "My story is similar to many I have heard, though each person needs to deal with a cancer diagnosis in their own way and in their own time.

"I finally took the time to get my first-ever mammogram in October of 2007, thanks to the encouragement of my doctor and colleagues. Walking out of the test that day I remember thinking, 'That wasn't so bad, why was I so scared? I am so glad I did it and I feel so proactive about my health care.'

"Two days later I was called back in for a closer look and then a sonogram. They sent me to get a biopsy. All three doctors said things like 'this doesn't look worrisome,' 'it's 90-95 percent benign,' and 'you can be mad at us later for putting you through this, but we would rather be overly cautious.'

"...The phone call came at work that I will never forget...'You have cancer.' It was a very surreal moment as was most of the journey...

"From there it was a whirlwind of decisions and things to think about, meetings with doctors, MRI and a biopsy. I then had a lumpectomy...followed by four chemo treatments, six-and-a-half weeks of radiation and one year of Herceptin, a newer intravenous drug administered because of testing positive for HER2NU. I'll finish Herceptin treatments in March.

"I will take a Tamoxifen pill every day to help prevent recurrence and could stay on that up to five years.

"While cancer may not be the usual blessing, it still is one. I am blessed because I had doctors who chose to err on the side of caution. I am blessed because I have faith, a husband, friends, family and community that helped me through this journey.

"I am blessed because I live in a place where I have resources that can provide support for me and my caretakers and education so detections are made early and funds are raised so research is done to make mine and millions of other people's prognosis hopeful...Together we can beat this thing!"

Wendy Larson dares transplant, hope

"My story starts 25 years ago," begins Wendy Larson of River Falls. "I was a junior in high school. I started noticing bruises in unusual areas. Eventually, I was diagnosed with acute myologenous leukemia (AML).

"The next two-and-a-half months included two rounds of chemotherapy and complete hair loss.

"Finally, I was in remission (cancer-free). With my type of leukemia, only 10% of patients stayed in remission without bone-marrow transplantation...They always test siblings first for matches. I only have two brothers, and my brother Scott was a perfect match!

"Only 2.5% of siblings are a perfect match. Unrelated donors are even less. I felt this was a definite leading from the Lord...

"Doctors went through all the statistics of transplantation, for example 50% survival of the chemo prior to transplant and 50% survival of the transplant itself. The biggest thing I was told: Plan on not being able to have children because of the full-body radiation treatment. I had always wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. ...My mom and I cried for three days over the children thing and decided we would let God be God...

"When I went in, I had a week of intense chemo (Cytoxin), a day of rest, four days of full-body radiation then more rest time. Transplant day was October 5, 1984.

"...Out of the 12 people in the (transplant) unit, I was the only one who survived. Fortunately, I had no rejection of the marrow, which is very common...The most interesting fact of this whole process is that my blood type changed from A positive to O positive because my brother is O positive. Typing for transplant has to do with the antigens on blood cells, not the blood type.

"Today, I am blessed to be an at-home mom, with a wonderful husband and two beautiful children who we adopted.

"It has been 25 years and I feel great. Getting cancer has changed my life and provided me with numerous opportunities, one of which is to encourage cancer survivors and let them know there is hope!

"I believe God has kept me on this Earth for that purpose. My family is proof of this."

Relay countdown

Fifty-five teams have signed up for the 2009 River Falls Relay. This year's relay chairperson, Tara Whipple, said registrations indicate that at least 660 people will take part.

Organizers welcome more participants, volunteers and silent auction items or other donations. The Journal will include other information about the relay event in weeks to come. To learn more now, contact Whipple at 425-0479 or and log onto the local relay Web site: