Cancer survivor, Gretchen Yagow, inspires hope

Imagine if you found out what you thought was stress was actually cancer. Imagine if you were told you had six weeks to live. That is what one of this year’s Relay for Life’s honorary survivors, Gretchen Yagow, had to endure.

Gretchen Yagow (right) with her daughter Laura Schoenrock and grandchildren Levi, Tristan and nine-week old baby Teiran. Photo by Noelle Olson

Yagow lived in Eagle River, Wisconsin, for 40 years where she raised her two children, Laura and Joshua, and was a teacher for the Northland Pines School District. Now, her daughter Laura Schoenrock lives in Isanti with her husband Tim and three children. Her son Joshua lives in the Appleton, Wisconsin area with his wife and daughter and a baby due in November. Five years ago, Yagow was having some breathing issues and thought it was due to stress.

“I thought I had trouble breathing because of stress,” Yagow said. “My daughter knew that it was something else and put her foot down. She encouraged me to go to the doctor. I made an appointment and went in the next day.”

The appointment lasted three hours. Yagow’s nurse practitioner noticed there were no breathing sounds in her left lung and immediately ordered a chest X-ray. The nurse practitioner thought there was something serious happening so she ordered a CT scan the next day.

“After the results from the CT scan came in, I was told that it was important to get my family here,” Yagow said. “It was Oct. 30, 2012. My son got there around 11 at night. Laura had a hard time getting there. It was a five-hour drive and she got a flat tire. She was stranded in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night.”

Schoenrock eventually got some help with her car.

“I called Triple A and some small-town towing company came out and it took him two hours to fix my tire,” Schoenrock said. “My Internet wasn’t working and my phone wasn’t working. All I wanted was to get to my mom.”

Schoenrock arrived at the hospital just before her mother was being taken to a biopsy.

“I was really happy to see her,” Yagow said. “It was a sigh of relief.”

The family stayed until the results of the biopsy came back a couple of days later. With her family and a close friend by her side, she received the news that she had Diffuse Large Cell Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

“My nurse practitioner just got to the point and told me I had cancer,” Yagow said. “I looked at my family and thought ‘Are they OK?’ Laura had tears in her eyes but she is like a rock. I live that moment all the time. We came out of the clinic and it hit me that I have cancer. I couldn’t believe it and I started to go down and Laura caught me.”

After the diagnosis, Yagow was assigned an oncologist and internist but she did not connect with them. She felt they did not believe she could get well. Schoenrock helped her mother find the right oncologist.

“The oncologist I wanted was Dr. Mattias Weiss. He wasn’t taking any new patients, but I called him every morning until he took me as a patient,” Yagow said. “He spent four hours with me the first night and he told me that if I didn’t start very aggressive treatment immediately, I would be dead in six weeks.”

Yagow started treatment and Schoenrock was there for all of them, except for one.

“Laura was with me and didn’t buckle or flinch,” Yagow said. “She made all of the important phone calls to the superintendent, the doctor, the hospital and the family when I just couldn’t.”

“It wasn’t an option,” Schoenrock said. “When your mom is sick, you deal with it and do whatever you can to make her better.”

The community in Eagle River supported her throughout her treatments. There was a fundraiser to help with the cost of medical care and people would drop off fresh fruit and vegetables at her home.

“It wasn’t just me helping her. She had a network of friends that would drop off food on her doorstep and not expect anything in return. This is what you need, this is what you’re going to get, and this is how we’re going to provide for you,” Schoenrock said. “It was a community effort to help and support her in any way that they could.”

Yagow was cancer free after seven months of treatment.

“My family understands the horrors of cancer,” she said. “What the family goes through, not just the patient, is so hard.”

“The entire time mom was in treatment, I didn’t cry once,” Schoenrock said. “When we found out she was cancer free, that’s when I cried. At that point, you’re released. It’s over and done. I finally let my emotion out.”

After becoming cancer free, Yagow got involved with Relay for Life and was on the national committee for clinical trials in oncology. In 2015, she retired from teaching and moved to Isanti to start over and be near her daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren.

“My reality of cancer is that I am cancer free,” Yagow said. “The reality of cancer is that anyone can get it at any time. But, there is always hope.”

About Isanti County Relay for Life

• Isanti County Fairgrounds, Cambridge
• Survivor and Caretaker Reception, 1 p.m.
• Opening Ceremony, 2 p.m.

Activities include: Bouncy House; Train Rides for the Kids; Petting Zoo; Kids Games; Face Painting by local ambassadors; Rescue Squad; Crazy Hair; Food Vendors; Information and chair massages provided by Opp Family Chiropractic; Vendor Booths such as Younique, Usborne Books, Young Living, Deb’s Jams and Jellies; and Music and Entertainment provided by Penni Custom Music and D.J.