Unexpected journeys for three determined cancer battlers
The fight to end cancer starts with one step that leads to many more steps. And with each step, the fight to end cancer draws closer.
On July 12, many more of these steps will be taken at the 20th annual Douglas County Relay for Life at Citizens Field in Alexandria.
The honorees for this year's event are Alexandria resident, Kim Clayton, Morgan Abel of Farwell and Fred Bursch of Alexandria.
Kim Clayton's life has revolved around cancer. From volunteering to working as the Midwest Division income development director for the American Cancer Society, she has organized and participated in fundraisers around the nation.
"I worked so hard to raise money for research and cancer patients that I never thought it would happen to me," Clayton said.
But in 2009, she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma cancer, an incurable blood cancer.
"It just hits you like a brick. After all the survivors I've talked with and heard their stories, I was suddenly part of the story," she said.
So far her treatment has consisted of stem cell transplants and chemotherapy. She will continue to be on some sort of chemotherapy for the rest of her life.
"When I first found out I had cancer, the chemo that I am using wasn't in existence, and without research it still wouldn't be here," Clayton said, reflecting on how donations are fighting cancer through research.
When Clayton was first diagnosed, she was told she had two years to live, but because of cancer treatments and determination she has exceeded expectations.
"You get knocked down by the cancer and then you get back on your feet and realize what is important," she said.
And for her it was her son and her husband.
"My son was 9 when I first started treatment and he was such a trooper and my husband was there by my side through the entire thing," she said.
Clayton has come full circle with cancer, from volunteer, to employee to patient, and she doesn't plan on stopping any time soon.
"I just hope they continue to find new chemos so I can continue to live a long life. Even though I may not be cured, I can live with cancer and have an active life with my family. They are the reason I am doing all of this," she said.
For Farwell's Morgan Abel, the word cancer hadn't even crossed her mind when she went into the doctor's office with a persistent cough she had all winter.
But after a week of testing, Abel was diagnosed with Stage III Hodgkins lymphoma on March 16, 2012.
"So many things were going through my head - am I going to be able to have kids, am I going to live, am I going to be the same Morgan Able after this?" she said.
After seven months of treatment at the Mayo Clinic, including chemotherapy and surgery, Abel was cancer free on October 26, 2012.
"My parents, my sister and my boyfriend, Jake Schnitzler, were such a huge support through it all," she said.
Now that Abel is cancer free, she plans to put her life back on track by going back to school for medical administrations specialist and medical coding specialist.
After receiving her degree, she also hopes to pursue something that she hadn't thought of doing before her battle with cancer.
"In the future I decided that I really want to go into something with cancer patients, like counseling, because I have the experience and I know what they are going through," she said.
But for now she is concentrating on getting her life together and just being a 21-year-old.
"The advice I can give to people with cancer is to ask questions and know what is going on, but it will be OK," she said. "Cancer is a big deal if you have it. I think the biggest thing my cancer journey did was to help me grow up and really see what is important."
In the past 15 months, many things in Fred Bursch's life have changed, from taking smaller, more frequent high protein meals to being more attune to what his body is telling him.
And it all started with a piece of chicken.
"I had choked on a piece of chicken at lunch. This had happened several times in the past but I thought I had just not chewed my food enough and just blew off the experience. After it happened this third time, I decided I had better see a doctor," he said.
After performing an endoscopy, he was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma of the esophagus a day before Christmas.
"Needless to say we were shocked. I felt like I had been hit in the gut with a two by four. I had never been sick or had any symptoms that seemed unusual," he said.
He had surgery on March 19, 2012 at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas in Houston. Surgeons removed seven inches of his esophagus, a third of his stomach and 49 lymph nodes.
Pathology reports showed no signs of cancer in the lymph nodes in August 2012 and February 2013. However, he will have to wait for test results this coming February to be deemed "cancer free."
"If there is one message I want people to hear it is that if they have frequent heart-burn or acid reflux, they should not ignore it. Esophageal cancer is acid reflux eroding the lining of your esophagus, which can then result in cancer," Bursch said.
Since the surgery, he has learned to "listen" to what his body is telling him and not push it as much as he previously had.
"I have learned to be patient with the healing process. It doesn't happen overnight," he said.