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Cancer survivors honored at Relay for Life

Lori Meissner, one of the honorary survivors for this year's Relay for Life, helps "paint the town purple" by putting up the Relay for Life flags down Broadway Street. Relay for Life is this Friday night at the Douglas County Fairgrounds. (Celeste Edenloff | Echo Press)1 / 3
Amy Winter2 / 3
Lori Meissner3 / 3

Lori Meissner's cancer story began 10 years ago, when she was 44. A routine mammogram found something suspicious, and a doctor gave her the news that a biopsy tested positive for breast cancer.

"I just about dropped out of my chair," she recalled. "I was all by myself. I was crying so hard."

Then her faith took hold.

"We come from a Christian family, so it's like 'OK, Lord, you got this,'" she said.

Lynette Kluver, a Relay for Life committee member, got to know Meissner through her job at Grand Arbor, church and other places. She figured she would make a great honored survivor for the 2017 Douglas County Relay for Life.

"The one thing that always struck me about Lori is she is so positive and she's one of the strongest women I know," Kluver said. "She has faced a lot of adversity."

Taking a cousin's advice, Meissner sought treatment at the Roger Maris Cancer Center in Fargo. Her cancer was caught so early, it was in just one breast and considered Stage Zero. Still, she opted for a double radical mastectomy.

"I'm too busy to sit here and wait for it to come back in the other breast," said the mom, grandma and fitness instructor from Brandon. "I'd rather do that and not deal with chemo or radiation."

When her friends learned about her diagnosis, they were shocked, since she's stayed active and fit all her life.

"They're like, 'If Lori got cancer, anyone can get it,'" she said.

And cancer is fairly common. Based on 2010-2012 data, nearly 40 percent of men and women will be diagnosed with cancer at some point during their lifetimes, according to the National Cancer Institute, the federal government's principal agency for cancer research and training.

Meissner encourages women to schedule regular mammograms.

"I'm very adamant about that," she said. "Get in there. Get it done."

One thing she's learned about cancer is that it comes in many different forms, and treatments vary from patient to patient. She advises those who have been newly diagnosed to research their cancer and pick the best treatment for them.

When Kluver asked her to be an honored survivor and give a talk, she hesitated. She wanted to pray about it first. But when she went to church next, the pastor talked about being an influence and she took that as a sign.

"I'm very honored that they asked me," she said. "I'm very blessed to be here to share."

They said she wouldn't have children

Amy Winter was just about to start college when a friend accidentally elbowed her in the cheek. It didn't seem to be a big deal, but her cheek kept hurting.

"Whenever I pushed on it, it would hurt and I could tell there was a little lump there," she said.

After a year of pain, she finally asked a doctor's advice. A surgeon operated and discovered a malignant tumor, which the blow had irritated. It was called a sarcoma.

Winter was 19 when she was diagnosed. She had just started her second year of college in Fargo, studying interior design.

Her parents were with her when she got the news. She knew what malignancy meant, since her father received regular chemotherapy for chronic leukemia. In fact, they ended up going through chemotherapy side-by-side. They'd watch the "Today Show," and "The Price is Right," while the drug flowed into their bodies. They'd talk about whatever was happening. They made friends with the doctors and nurses.

Her oncologist told her she would probably never have children, which saddened her because she had always wanted to be a mom. Still, they gave her shots of Depo-Provera, a birth control treatment which contains the hormone progestin, in hopes of putting her reproductive system into dormancy until she finished treatments.

After a year of chemotherapy, she seemed cured. She finished college and moved to the Twin Cities. There, she and roommates were eating when something got stuck in her cheek.

"I felt the same thing I had felt the first time," she said. "I knew it was back."

She was 23. This time, the doctors opted for radiation instead of chemotherapy, telling her that her kind of sarcoma wouldn't respond to chemotherapy. So her year-long chemotherapy treatment had been pointless, except for the hours she spent with her dad.

Radiation tested her in ways chemo had not.

For six weeks, she lived in a haze of hospital rooms, feeding tubes, pain and morphine. The daily treatments of radiation burned her nose shut. She couldn't swallow or talk or eat or drink water.

When it was over, she needed four reconstructive surgeries inside her mouth.

The ordeal helped her. For 11 years, she has been cancer-free, and is considered cured.

And as for having children? The hormone shot during chemo must have worked. She give birth to two children, ages 6 and 9. Plus, she has a 13-year-old "bonus daughter" from her husband.

She hopes her experience will give women hope. And she advised those with cancer diagnoses to find people to talk to.

"Creating those connections is huge," she said. "I've made some pretty good friends through having cancer. ... Some good will come out of it. It doesn't seem like it, but it will."

A Hoffman native, Winter lives in Glenwood. Last year, she served as honored survivor at Glenwood's Relay for Life event.

Katie Rentschler, then an American Cancer Society employee in charge of the state's Relay for Life events, heard her speak and nominated her for the honor in Alexandria.

"It was clear there were a lot of people there because they wanted to support her," she said.

"She just really inspired me as a mom and someone close to my age. It's pretty incredible how cancer doesn't have to take everything from you, that you can have a lot of blessings from it."

She added, "I know she's not from Alex, but we're close enough neighbors that her story will be resonating with people."

Winter immediately agreed to speak.

"I said 'absolutely,'" she said. "I was nervous to do it in Glenwood but it was a good experience."

Winter owns a wedding and portrait photography studio in Glenwood. Her passion is photographing families dealing with cancer.

"It's my way to give back and show them that although things are tough when dealing with cancer, there's so much love that is evident," she said. "And to look back on that love years after a patient is done with treatment is amazing."

Relay for Life schedule

This week, Alexandria will be bathed in royal hue, as volunteers post purple ribbons and flags along roads and on storefronts in honor of Relay for Life, an annual American Cancer Society fundraising event. Douglas County raised $186,000 last year, one of the top fundraisers in the state; this year's goal is $200,000.

Relay for Life in Douglas County will see some changes this year. The biggest is that it won't run all night. The American Cancer Society has loosened its rules about how long relays must last. Instead of an all-night event, it now requires a period of darkness to showcase luminarias in honor or memory of those who have endured cancer. This year's relay will wrap up at 1 a.m. Also, the opening ceremony will be streamlined with two honored survivors instead of three, and no honored caretaker this year.

All events take place Friday, July 14, at 5 p.m. through Saturday, July 15, at 1 a.m. at the Douglas County Fairgrounds, 300 Fairgrounds Road in Alexandria. The schedule is as follows:

5 p.m. Free will supper, survivor hospitality area, and fundraiser lane

6 p.m. Opening ceremonies (all other activities shut down for this time)

6:45 p.m. Survivors lap and caregivers lap

7 p.m. Free will supper, survivor hospitality area, fundraiser lane, kids games

Dusk: Luminaria Ceremony

Midnight: Miss Relay Pageant (Hint: they're not misses.)

12:30 a.m. Closing ceremonies

Other entertainment for the night includes mission theme laps such as crazy hair and crazy hat; Zumba; lighting and sound from LiveWire; and Blonde & the Bohunk band.