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Cancer survivors share stories of hope, courage

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Three people. Three lives. Three stories. Three goals - celebrate, remember, fight back.

The American Cancer Society's 26th annual Relay for Life will take place this weekend at Citizen's Field in Alexandria.

The fundraising event will begin at 6 p.m., tonight, Friday, and will run through 6 a.m., Saturday.

The honorees for this year's event are Bernice Schmitz, Dianne Verant and Brian Johnson - all residents of Douglas County.

The honorees

Bernice Schmitz

It will be 26 years ago that Bernice Schmitz, 72, fought the battle and won. Schmitz, who has been involved with Relay for Life in Douglas County since its inception, is a breast cancer survivor.

Back when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she had a mastectomy and had to go through chemotherapy. And since that time, she hasn't had any recurrence of the disease.

While going through her treatment, Schmitz was working at Alexandria Extrusion, which she said was a blessing because it was wonderful working for such a supportive company.

She is now retired and has been for the past 11 years.

Relay for Life, according to Schmitz, is an experience for everyone.

"It's a big help and very uplifting for those who are going through cancer," she said. "The relay is so important."

Besides Relay for Life, Schmitz is heavily involved with another American Cancer Society program - Reach to Recovery. The program helps women and men cope with their breast cancer experience. Reach to Recovery volunteers provide support either through face-to-face visits or by phone.

During the past 15 years, Schmitz has called on 157 women and one man in Douglas County through the Reach to Recovery program.

Dianne Verant

Dianne Verant was 38 when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. That was in 1995. Three years later, the cancer came back.

But now, at the age of 54, she is cancer-free.

"I've been fortunate enough to survive - so far," said Verant. "This experience has made me stronger."

And like Schmitz, Verant is now a Reach to Recovery volunteer. When Verant was going through cancer, Schmitz was her Reach to Recovery volunteer.

"With the support from that program, you realize this [surviving cancer] is possible," she said. "Without Bernice, I'm not sure what I would've done."

There are four key components Verant believes helps people who are diagnosed with cancer - information, prayer, a positive attitude and support.

"It's amazing how much support means," she said, explaining that support could come in the form of a card, kind words, a squeeze of the hand, a touch on the shoulder or the caring look in someone's eyes. "It's amazing, the power of support. It's all the little things that matter, but it really makes a huge difference."

Verant said that life isn't the same for those who have been diagnosed with cancer or any life-threatening disease. But, she added, people can make a choice, "I could be a puddle on the floor or I could choose to fight this. People can survive. We can survive."

For the third year in a row, Verant is participating in the Relay for Life with the team, Threads of Love. However, she has been involved with the event for numerous years.

Brian Johnson

This is the second year 50-year-old Brian Johnson will be participating in the Relay for Life.

His neighbor and friend, Kia Moberg, headed up the team he is on. Johnson said Moberg lost her grandpa to cancer and also has a grandma who is a survivor.

"She's the one who got this going and is now continuing it," Johnson said. "I'm just fortunate enough to be a part of the team."

Cindy Johnson, a Relay for Life committee member who is an acquaintance of Johnson's, asked him to be one of this year's honorary survivors.

"She wouldn't give up on me, so I caved in and said yes," explained Johnson. "But it's still really emotional yet. It's [his cancer] not that far in the past."

Johnson was diagnosed with Stage 3 rectal cancer in April of 2008. He underwent chemo and radiation and also had to have surgery.

When he was diagnosed with cancer, he was referred to the University of Minnesota Hospital, where he now goes back every three months for check-ups.

"So far, so good," he said. "I'm here and it's green side up!"

About the event

The program of events is as follows:

•6 p.m. - Opening ceremony.

•6:30 p.m. - Survivor lap and the start of the relay.

•6:45 p.m. - Free-will supper, which is provided by the Eagles Club, Klinders and Miltona Meats.

•7:30 p.m. Children's games.

•Dusk (around 9 p.m.) - Luminaria ceremony.

•10 p.m. until 1 a.m. - Rocking Horse Peter will perform.

•11 p.m. - Fight Back ceremony.

•11 p.m. - Pizza provided to all participants.

•5:15 a.m. - Closing ceremony.

•6 a.m. - Breakfast at Tennessee Roadhouse.

Livewire DJ will provide music all night long and there will be other activities and games throughout the event.