Honorary Survivors for Relay for Life

The Isanti County Relay for Life is holding its annual cancer walk Friday, Aug. 12 at the Isanti County Fairgrounds in Cambridge. This is a community event to raise money for research for the cure of  cancer. The festivities begin with a reception for cancer survivors at 5:45 p.m., and the program will start at7 p.m. The luminary ceremony is at 9 p.m. It is an enjoyable evening for everyone.

Gunnar Nelson
‘Heart of a Warrior’

By Rachel Kytonen

Terry and Kelly Nelson knew their lives would never be the same after their 8-year-old son, Gunnar, was diagnosed with cancer.

Gunnar Nelson

Kelly explained in January and February Gunnar was having a lot of leg pain, and waking up with fevers. Some days he would be fine, but then other days the pain and fevers would come back.

On Feb. 27, Gunnar was admitted to the emergency room at Children’s Hospital in St. Paul, and they did an MRI. Gunnar’s bone marrow tested positive for cancer, and on March 1, the family learned Gunnar had Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a cancer of the white blood cells, the cells in the body that normally fight infections. ALL affects lymphoid cells.

Gunnar will be one of the four 2011 Honorary Survivors for this year’s Isanti County Relay for Life event to be held Friday, Aug. 12.

“Gunnar being asked to be a co-chair for the Relay for Life is an honor,” Kelly said. “Along with being an honor, it’s also a reminder that he has cancer. This may sound hard to believe, but while moving along with daily things, it’s hard to believe we are on this journey. Being part of this event will give us and others support to know we are all in this together. I don’t think Gunnar fully understands what happens with the Relay, but I know he will be emotionally touched when he is taking the first walk with other survivors.”

Gunnar’s parents said they were stunned when they learned Gunnar had cancer.

“I was completely shocked,” Kelly said when she learned of Gunnar’s diagnosis. “I was numbed by the diagnosis. I really didn’t know what was going to happen next. My heart goes to all the families in similar situations. It can happen to your family, and those were words I thought I would never hear.”

Kelly said Gunnar recently finished his large doses of chemo that required him to stay in the hospital for three days, every three weeks.

“He has been such a fighter through this battle,” Kelly said.  “He does what he needs to without complaining, I know he understands the importance of following the ‘doctors orders.’ We’ve had a pretty busy summer, which this spring I didn’t think we’d be doing even half of what we’ve done. We have been very fortunate that Gunnar has had the strength and energy that he’s had. We take every day as it comes.”

According to the National Cancer Institute, ALL is the most common cancer in children, representing 23 percent of cancer diagnoses among children younger than 15 years of age.

It occurs in about one of every 29,000 children in the United States each year.

Kelly said Gunnar’s name stands for “bold warrior,” and that description fits him to a tee. She said on Aug. 17, Gunnar starts his 2 1/2 years of maintenance. She said this still consists of chemo, but he is able to be treated at Children’s clinic as an outpatient, and added during this 2 1/2 years, the goal is to keep his body from producing cancer cells.

“Gunnar has really been a warrior through this entire thing,” Kelly said. “He’s really been strong throughout everything.”

“Gunnar really marches through everything, day by day,” Terry added.

Terry said faith has played a role in all of this.

“All the prayers in the community have really given us strength,” Terry said.

Both Terry and Kelly have grown up in the Cambridge area, and have lived in the community all their lives.

“We have a lot of friends and family in the area who have offered us continued support,” Kelly said.

Gunnar’s spirit continues to thrive.

“Determined, he will not let this hold him down,” Kelly said.  “Gunnar has a very strong will power to keep being as active as any other 8-year-old boy and wants to keep up with his big brother Ryley. Gunnar has a way of keeping all of us around him looking forward. Along our battle with Leukemia, we have met other families and children the same age as Gunnar. Gunnar often talks about how bad he feels for them. He has a huge heart full of compassion.”

Terry and Kelly said their family is looking forward to the Relay for Life event.

“Our family will definitely be attending the Relay for Life event,” Kelly said. “I am looking forward to seeing people from our community who have loved ones who are battling this fight, or maybe just want to come out and show their support. I know the night will take on a different meaning—I have feelings of sadness and yet joy knowing we are honoring Gunnar for his faith that gives us all hope.”

For those interested in following Gunnar’s story, his CaringBridge page can be found at www.caringbridge.org/visit/gunnarnelson.


Kathy Bohman
‘I don’t let it define me’

By Elizabeth Sias

When Kathy Bohman experienced abdominal pain and bleeding, she had many months of doctor visits before she was eventually diagnosed with Lynch syndrome, a rare inherited condition that increases risk of cancer.

Kathy Bohman

Her first reaction was to ask ‘Ok, what do we have to do?’

That positive, keep-moving-forward attitude has been has been a source of strength and determination as Bohman, 50, continues to fight cancer, making routine visits to the Mayo Clinic to keep an eye out for cancerous cells.

“I don’t let it define me. I don’t let it bring me down,” she said. “I’ve always had this attitude that I live my life and I don’t have control over what it does, but I do have control over what I do, so I continue to live.”

This year, Cambridge resident Bohman, a native of Bigfork, Minn., is an Honorary Survivor for the 2011 Relay for Life in Cambridge on Friday, Aug. 12.

With the initial diagnosis in May 2008, doctors discovered a mass on her uterus — endometrial cancer. She underwent a full hysterectomy, and several months later, she had malignancies in her colon, as well.

As a preventative measure, Bohman has yearly colonoscopies. Because it’s hereditary, her siblings and her two children, 26-year-old Aliesha and 23-year-old Steven, also have to be checked. Her son hasn’t been tested yet, but Aliesha carries the mutation in the gene, which means she’ll have to have a hysterectomy and yearly colonoscopies like her mother.

To make matters more complicated, Bohman was adopted into the family — once she was diagnosed with Lynch syndrome, she began a search for her birth parents so she could make them and any biological siblings aware of their risk of also having the condition.

She hasn’t found her birth father, but discovered that her biological mother and all of her siblings died of cancer.

“That was eye-opening,” Bohman said. “I felt that that family needed to know, if they wanted to, that this is something they may have to watch for.”

With Lynch syndrome, there’s always an increased risk of developing cancerous cells, so Bohman listens to her body carefully for signs and routinely visits the Mayo Clinic in Rochester for testing.

Recently doctors found clusters on her bladder and toes, but she doesn’t let the disease get her down.

“You’ve just got to stay on top of it and be proactive with your health,” she said.

The most challenging aspect of it for her has been not being able to do all the activities she wants to. Shortly after she was diagnosed with Lynch syndrome, she found out she had large joint arthritis from head to toe, making simple tasks like mowing the lawn or holding her grandchildren difficult.

“Everyday things that people take for granted, I can’t do,” she said. “I try. I always try, and I give it my best, but it’s those simple things that are my biggest challenge.”

Her husband, children and grandchildren are a positive force in her life. She and her husband have been married 10 years and might soon renew their vows.

“I have a lot of good people around me,” she said.

It’s those people and her positive attitude that keep Bohman strong. She’s a team captain for this year’s Relay for Life, and she looks forward to the event.

“It’s a great security blanket knowing you’re not alone,” she said. “It’s an emotional event.”

In the end, Bohman is simply happy to be able to call herself a survivor.

“I’ve always been a positive person and I’ve always had a good outlook on life, but I think it’s changed that to be even stronger and better,” she said. “I don’t have time to be upset about little things, I don’t have time for negativism. Every breath you take is good, and every day is good.”


Shirley Juntti
‘Keeping a positive attitude’

By Rachel Kytonen

As Shirley Juntti was about to leave her doctor’s office after her appointment for her annual physical in 2007, she remembered to mentioned a red blotch that would appear when she would take a shower.

Shirley Juntti

The next day, Juntti was at the breast cancer center in Coon Rapids undergoing an MRI, and she knew something was seriously wrong.

On May 24, 2007, Juntti was diagnosed with stage 3B breast cancer, and she was referred down to Abbott Northwestern Hospital.

“The only symptom I had was the red blotch that would appear,” Juntti said. “But it showed up at the same spot all the time after I would take a shower. Thank God my doctor listened to me about my concern, otherwise I may not be here today.”

Juntti is one of the four Honorary Survivor’s for this year’s Isanti County Relay for Life to be held Aug. 12 at the Isanti County Fairgrounds.

However, Juntti was determined to not let the cancer completely turn her life upside down. She waited until August to have surgery because she wanted to be able to attend her son’s, Matt, high school graduation, and also later accompany him to the National Skills USA Welding competition in Kansas City, Mo.

Juntti said her husband, Tom, and family have been extremely supportive during this time.

“My  husband attended every single one of my chemo appointments, and my sisters would also help out and give me rides to and from my appointments.”

Juntti, who works in the Information Technology Department at Isanti County, said her co-workers were also very supportive, and donated her some of their sick time.

But, Juntti said she always tried to keep a positive attitude.

“When I was going through chemo and losing my hair, my son would give me ‘noogies’ on my bald head,” Juntti said smiling. “I would also ask him if I had any eyelashes left, and he would laugh and always tell me he just saw a few. We’d always try to keep things light.”

Juntti did eight courses of chemo, and it took a toll on her. She would get so sick she would have to take medications to help with the nausea before her treatments at Virginia Piper.

Juntti said being diagnosed with breast cancer gave her a new perspective.

“I have a new focus, and try not to put things off anymore,” Juntti said. “We are just trying to live life a little more, and go on more vacations, and do things we enjoy.”

Juntti said she became involved with Relay for Life after her diagnosis, and feels honored to have been selected an honorary survivor.

“Relay for Life is a very inspirational event,” Juntti said. “What people should realize is that everyone is welcome at the event. Besides walking around the path and looking at the luminaries, there is also food, games, silent auction and more for people to do.”


Wendell Johnson
‘Believing in faith, medical science’

By Greg Hunt

For Wendell Johnson, beating cancer is a mix of faith and medical science. One of the four Honorary Survivors for this year’s Isanti County Relay for Life will share his testament to that thought at Friday night’s fundraiser at the fairgrounds.

Wendell Johnson

Both Johnson and his wife, Laurel, were born and raised in Isanti County, leaving for the big city in 1959. He “came up through the ranks” to become a Lutheran pastor in 1969, serving as minister at various churches around Minnesota since then: Minneapolis, Dalton, Stacy and Spicer.

In fact, last weekend the Johnsons journeyed back to the Dalton Free Lutheran Parish near Fergus Falls to celebrate that church’s 100th anniversary.

Johnson retired from the ministry in 1994 and moved back to this area. It was that same year that prostate cancer was detected in him.

“There was no warning. Dr. Deye discovered it, working with a radiologist,” he recalled. “I had a prostatectomy, and that was good for about seven years. Then my PSA count went up like before, and I had to get 37 radiation treatments at Unity. But after all those shots, my PSA count went higher. After that, I got three shots of Lupron®, and the cancer has been undetectable since.”

Johnson has been involved with the Relay for Life for eight years, stacking up “a lot of shirts” from the Survivors Walk.

“It’s really a special time,” said Laurel.

Offering advice to all adults, Johnson recommended, “Early detection by PSA testing is important; I think they started doing that more now. Don’t be afraid to get your counts.”

Through beating cancer, Johnson keeps running with an active life. He still fills in the pulpit whenever needed. He  will be helping at son Joel’s threshing show the last weekend in August. And there have been many grandkids’ sports playoff games to attend this summer around the state, including hoping grandson Kyle Johnson’s Isanti Redbirds keep their season rolling in the playoffs.

“Keeping a positive attitude is important when taking on a disease like cancer. I just believe in prayer, too. God made us and created us, so you’ve got to give him some glory,” finished Johnson. “And the medical field is really doing wonderfully, too. That’s what this Relay for Life is all about is to keep the funds coming for more research.”