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Pat Haabala was diagnosed with cancer in 1997 and her grandson, Cole, was diagnosed with cancer three years ago.

Survivors remembered

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news Alexandria, 56308
Alexandria Minnesota 225 7th Ave E
P.O. Box 549
56308

In 2010, more than 550,000 people of all ages died from cancer and millions of friends and families were affected by it.

But through raising funds, awareness and remembrance, they keep fighting back.

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The American Cancer Society's 28th annual Relay for Life will take place on July 13 and 14 at Citizens Field in Alexandria.

The fundraising event will begin at 6 p.m. on Friday and run until 6 a.m. on Saturday.

The honorees for this year's event are former Alexandria resident, Brenda Larson of Northfield, and Pat Haabala and Cole Haabala, both of Alexandria.

THE HONOREES

Brenda Larson

"If there is one thing cancer changed most, it was that it taught me to cherish life," Larson said. "Cancer is like a gift you can't return even if you want to, but it's made me a better and more compassionate person."

In 2010, she was diagnosed with stage three grade two breast cancer. For 18 months she received treatment at the Mayo Clinic, which included one month of chemotherapy, six and a half weeks of radiation and three surgeries.

"The care I received at the Mayo Clinic was just amazing," she recalled. "I had a lot of complications with my surgeries and radiation; contracting radiation burns and infections, but they took such great care of me."

Though she has been out of intense treatment for some months now, she is still involved in five case studies and regularly helps and attends support groups at the Mayo Clinic.

"It's nice to be around people who are going through the same thing," she said. "In everyday life, your hair grows back and people forget what you lived through, but the relay and other survivors don't forget; they love and honor you."

For more than 15 years, Brenda has been a strong supporter of Relay for Life, from participating to organizing, she likes to take part in any way she can. And now, she knows first-hand how much good the relay does.

"I would not be here if it wasn't for the case studies and the money that is poured into the breast cancer unit from the Relay for Life, and other donations. It's these people who have gone the distance to fight the battle, and have saved so many lives," she said.

On July 6, Brenda, who lived in Alexandria for a few years before moving to Northfield to be closer to the Mayo Clinic, will be one year out from her last treatment and surgery.

Pat Haabala

"When I found out I had cancer in 1997, they told me I had a 50 percent chance of surviving for six weeks and less than a 10 percent chance of no reoccurrences," Pat Haabala of Alexandria recalled.

But miraculously, those six weeks have turned into 17 years and the cancer has not returned.

"Miracles happen every day if we just look," she said. "For me, cancer just stopped me in my tracks and made me realize how precious life is."

When she first went to the doctor in 1994 with a swollen neck, nothing seemed to be wrong, but after an MRI and outpatient therapy, the follow-up checkup read a different story - cancer.

She was brought to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester where she was diagnosed with stage four submandibular cancer, which is a cancer of the salivary gland.

"Out of all the experiences I've had with cancer, the toughest thing I've ever had to do was sit down with my three children and explain I was going for surgery and I may not come home," she noted about the radical dissection that was performed on her neck.

Though the journey has been hard, she has learned many things along the way, like that it is OK to ask for help and to pray and listen to God every day.

"Cancer changed the way I look at life. It made me refocus my thoughts and enjoy every moment," Pat, currently cancer free, said.

Over the past few years, she has participated in numerous Relays for Life and receives money for the relay through Grandma Pat's Lemonade Stand.

Cole Haabala

Cancer is the last thing that comes to mind when you look at Pat Haabala's grandson, Cole Haabala, a 7-year-old boy who loves to play hockey, baseball, soccer and swim. But three years ago, Cole was diagnosed with stage four diffuse anaplastic wilms tumor on his right kidney, and has since lived through a year of intense treatment including a surgery to remove his kidney and the tumor, radiation and more than a year of chemotherapy

"As a parent, to see your child so sick is the worst feeling ever. You would do anything to trade places with them, but you can't," Cole's mother, Carly Haabala, noted.

Through it all though, Cole has stayed upbeat and smiling.

"There were days where you or I would not have gotten out of bed. But not Cole; he was riding a trike as fast as he could through the halls of the hospital, or sneaking out with his dad to the parking ramp to hit baseballs - all while being hooked up to his IV pole."

Even though he has had a tough three years and there may be future side effects from the treatments, such as secondary cancers and infertility, Cole is choosing to focus on the good memories in his past - like meeting his hero, Joe Mauer, dropping the puck at a Minnesota Wild game, and going to Disney World through the Make A Wish foundation.

"He has been so brave and strong - keeping a smile on his face the whole time," Carly said. "He was determined to 'beat the moron,' which is what he named his cancer."

And he has beaten it so far. This August he will be two years' post treatment, with the scans showing all clear. A feat the doctors never thought would happen, because during the first diagnosis, Cole only had a 20 percent chance of surviving.

"Every little cough, fever, tummy ache or every sniffle, the thought of it being cancer is in the back of my mind, but we take one day at a time and try not to stress about the future," Carly noted. "We believe Jesus Christ healed him, so we hold on to that."

ABOUT THE RELAY

The 2012 Douglas County Relay for Life will be held on July 13 and 14 at Citizen's Field in Alexandria. The fundraising event will begin at 6 p.m. on Friday and run until 6 a.m. on Saturday.

The event begins with an opening presentation and survivors lap, following which participants join the survivors on the track and walk the remainder of the night.

Throughout the event there will be live music, a dunk tank, food and much more. Other events that take place include the lighting of the luminaries that line the track at dusk, as well as many fundraisers.

So far, the 355 people that are participating have raised more than $60,000.

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