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River Falls man fights the odds, fights for his life

Family activities are important for the Sabelkos. Above, they pause for this picture during a summer vacation last August in the Door County peninsula. <i>Submitted photos</i>

Jeremy Sabelko's wife, Amber, calls him "very competitive, very stubborn, someone who always wants to win."

"I'm hoping that attitude will make a difference," she said Friday night, Jan. 25, at their home four miles east of River Falls. "I hope Jeremy takes it out on his cancer so he doesn't let the sickness win."

Lying on the couch next to her, Jeremy adds: "I'm going to fight for my kids."

The Sabelkos' two children, Rylee and Parker, are ages 7 and 4.

On his 33rd birthday in mid-November, Jeremy Sabelko, an athletic, active man who was rarely sick, learned he had a Stage 4 non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. He was bluntly told survival rates for such an aggressive cancer are 30-40%.

Since then Jeremy's been in and out of hospitals, including for his birthday, Thanksgiving and Christmas. A fourth round of chemotherapy starts this week.

The removal and re-transplant of his own stem cells plus a more-potent chemo dosage to erase his immune system and then reactivate it could follow during a two-month stay at the University of Minnesota Medical Center.

There is some cancer on Jeremy's side of the family -- lung, prostate and melanoma -- but no record of lymphoma.

Jeremy and Amber became high school sweethearts while attending Durand High School. They met through a mutual friend at a county fair and were married on Valentine's Day 2004.

For 10 years Jeremy has worked as maintenance manager at BIX Produce Co. in St. Paul. Amber is a lead teacher at UW-River Falls C.H.I.L.D. Center.

The couple and their two kids attend St. Bridget Catholic Church.

Says Amber: "We've always made it a point, up until Jeremy got sick, to attend Wednesday night Family Faith Formation classes as an entire family so that our children see that 'faith' and 'family' go together."

Jeremy has played ball since high school. He plays second base and shortstop for a local recreational softball team that was called "Da Sticks," but is now sponsored by Carbone's Pizza.

"He really enjoys playing the game with a great group of guys," Amber says.

Jeremy used his ballplaying background to help coach his daughter's Parks-and-Rec evening t-ball team.

The always-healthy Jeremy and Amber took their kids out for an evening of trick-or-treating on Halloween. Days later he noticed some swelling under his arms.

He still felt fine so he didn't mention the swelling. Then one lump grew to golf-ball size. Amber was alarmed.

Their regular doctor wasn't in but they got Jeremy in to be checked at the River Falls Medical Clinic. The outlook didn't seem serious -- an infection, yet there was no fever or night sweats. Jeremy was prescribed with Amoxicillin.

Several days later Jeremy was afflicted with agonizing pain and numbness in his tailbone and backside. His stools were black, caused by internal bleeding. The little comfort he had was lying down.

There was talk of a bleeding ulcer, maybe inflammation of the prostate gland. But a stronger antibiotic and pain medications were ineffective.

Jeremy was sick and missing work for the first time. Desperate, Amber called Rita Raverty, their family physician, at home.

Jeremy was seen in the hospital ER by Raverty and had a CT scan. Amber got the Stage 4 Lymphoma prognosis while shuttling her kids to gymnastics and a Girl Scouts food drive.

"I was bawling while I tried to keep driving down the road," she said.

That was to be the start of untold trips for Jeremy and Amber -- some sudden and in the middle of the night -- for treatments at United Hospital in St. Paul.

A Saturday, Feb. 2, benefit for Jeremy has been set up at the American Legion Hall, 701 N. Main St., from 4-11 p.m. A Twin Cities country group called the Ben Johnson Band will perform live from 8-11 p.m.

A free-will donation gets people into the event. Those attending will be served a meal of pulled-pork sandwiches, hot-beef sandwiches, baked beans, coleslaw, fresh fruit, cookies, bars, milk, water, coffee and soda.

There will be a silent and live auction with items such as a snow blower, TV, iPad, wine, quilts, totes, a John Deere Gator for kids, lots of gift certificates and more donated by area businesses and individuals.

Jeremy may be undergoing more chemo and his presence at the benefit is unlikely.

For much more on this story, please see the Jan. 31 print edition of the River Falls Journal.