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Why I relay 0522: Cancer affects family, friends

Cancer has woven its long, snake-like fingers throughout my family tree.

On my mother’s side of the family, cancer has taken the lives of my aunt, my grandfather and two of my great-uncles.

When I was 12, my aunt was diagnosed with cancer. My mom boarded a plane to fly from Alaska to Alabama for six weeks to care for her dying sister.

Easter morning the telephone rang at our house. My aunt Raylene was gone. She was a young woman of 38 and had two children. I would never get to see her beautiful smile surrounded by her red hair. My mother had lost a sister. Cancer had taken a daughter, a sister, a wife and a mother of two.

When I was 14, my Grandpa Doyle was diagnosed with cancer. He was a man full of adventure and dreams.

When they were looking for volunteers to be pioneers in Alaska, he eagerly signed up. He was not old enough to be considered a legal adult, so he was denied. My grandpa did not give up easily. As soon as he turned 18 he tried again. He fulfilled his dream as a dairy farmer in the Matanuska Valley in Alaska where he raised three girls.

Grandpa didn’t give up with his cancer diagnoses, either. He outlived the prognosis by 11 years while living his retirement dream of RV’ing around the United States.

In 2008, Grandpa could fight no longer. He continued to plan his next camping trip, but had to give up on July 6. Cancer had taken a husband, a brother and a father to three.

On the other side of my family tree, both of my grandparents have fought cancer. Many years ago my grandma won the fight against breast cancer. My grandma is not a smoker — she never was — however cancer took half of one of her lungs. She gets winded and tires easily.

Grandma was the caregiver of the home. She continued this role when my Grandpa Dale was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Stomach cancer is vicious and fast. Grandpa didn’t have long. Cancer took an organ. Cancer took a husband, a brother and a father to four.

The horrible fingers of this disease are all throughout my family tree. It has a presence on both sides. It has not discriminated between male and female. This past fall, cancer wove its way into my circle of friends.

In September, my friend and co-worker came to work and said she just didn’t feel good. Tammy felt like she couldn’t get one of her legs to work. We googled symptoms and I was worried. I thought she might have multiple sclerosis and bugged her to call the doctor to make an appointment.

She failed her neurological exam and they referred her to Brainerd for an emergency MRI to see what was going on. I assured her that they always have to be extra careful and that she would be just fine. I hung up the phone and worried.

That night I got a text from her husband. The MRI was not good. There was a tumor. A large tumor in her brain. I cried. I panicked. How could this be? She was 43. She has three kids.

Tammy was sent to St. Cloud the following week to have brain surgery. The surgeon did what he could. Tammy was sent home to recover and start on radiation and chemotherapy. Tammy’s hair fell out. She needed to use a walker at times. My vibrant, singing Tammy was fading.

Tammy went to Mayo. She had her second brain surgery in six months. The surgeon there was able to remove 95 percent of the tumor. Tammy could no longer use the right side of her body. She entered the rehab facility in St. Cloud to get help learning to use her right side again.

While in rehab Tammy got sick. She was infected with influenza A. In a matter of days she was put on a ventilator and in a medically induced coma. My Tammy could not sing with me anymore. Cancer took a wife, a mother to three and a sister to two.

I relay so no one has to tell their children, “I have cancer.” Please come to the opening ceremony on Friday, June 20, at the Pine River-Backus High School track at 7 p.m. and join us in celebrating the survivors, in remembering those whom we have lost and in fighting back against this dreaded disease.

Heather Neumann is the team captain for Choosing Hope and this is that team’s first year participating in the PR-B Relay For Life.