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Benefit planned for Nisswa family

Ocular melanoma, or eye cancer, is diagnosed in just 2,500 adults every year in the United States. In 2009, Branden Burnard of Nisswa was one of those adults.

Those adults have a 20 percent chance of the cancer spreading to their lungs and an 80 percent chance of having it spread to their liver.

Burnard learned in March that his cancer had spread to his lungs.

Branden, 35, and his wife, April, 33, were told that life expectancy without chemotherapy treatments was two to three months. With weekly chemotherapy treatments, the average life expectancy is 12 to 15 months, the Burnards said.

“He (the doctor) said, ‘Don’t think you only have 15 months to live. We don’t want you to think that,’” Branden said, noting their doctor at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester was adamant.

To help the Burnard family, which includes daughters Brandy, 14, and Madison, 10, a benefit will be held from 5-8 p.m. Saturday, at the Nisswa American Legion. The goal is to help the Burnards with medical expenses and time spent away from their jobs for weekly chemotherapy treatments in Brainerd. Branden works at Ferrellgas and April is a manager at Wendy’s in Nisswa.

The family has been overwhelmed with the outpouring of community support.

“It’s amazing,” said Branden, an assistant Nisswa fire chief and president of the Nisswa area first responders.

Besides friends and family, fellow Nisswa firefighters and firefighters from area departments, the Burnards have heard from fire departments in the Twin Cities. Branden works for Fire Instruction and Rescue Education (F.I.R.E. Inc.), where he trains firefighters through live training burns throughout the state.

“That’s the amazing thing, is you don’t know how many people you’ve touched,” April said.

Branden first knew something was wrong when he woke up one morning in July 2009 with distorted vision in one eye. After being referred to a specialist in Sartell, Branden learned he had ocular melanoma. Mayo Clinic radiation oncologists performed brachytherapy, where they surgically implanted a device that delivered radiation for one week and shrunk the tumor in Branden’s eye.

Since then he’s been checked at Mayo Clinic every six months.

“And we always had positive checkups,” April said.

However, the cancer generally moves somewhere, usually the liver — or lungs, Branden said.

“This time (March checkup) the chest X-ray showed all these little nodules,” he said.

Branden had a CT scan in Brainerd and the Burnards waited an agonizing week before learning Branden had 30-plus nodules confirmed.

“They’re all small, so that’s the good news,” Branden said, “and the only way to treat them is through chemo.”

After five trips to Rochester within three weeks for a lung biopsy, the Burnards learned after another agonizing week that the ocular melanoma had, indeed, spread to his lungs.

The Burnards are thankful Branden is able to undergo weekly chemo treatments at Essentia Health-St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Brainerd instead of taking weekly trips to Rochester. He’s had two chemo treatments so far.

“They’ll never be able to cure it. It’s a matter of sustaining,” Branden said, noting doctors will continually check to see if the cancer moves to his brain or bones.

For now, Branden still plans to do what he’s always done, remain an active dad and celebrate his 15th wedding anniversary with April on May 24.

“He’s still waiting for the pager to go off,” April said of her firefighting husband.