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Relay for Life: Cancer survivor gains strength by shunning silence

Judi Laurence, (left) firefighter, emergency medical technician and mother of three, is this year's honorary cancer survivor for the Relay for Life of Crow Wing County. Laurence and Mary Crenna, Relay for Life event lead, were both diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2009. Survivors and lost loved ones are honored at the annual fundraising event. Steve Kohls/Brainerd Dispatch1 / 2
Mary Crenna decorates luminary bags for the Relay for Life event, which are lighted on the night of the relay in memory of loved ones or in honor of cancer survivors. Renee Richardson/Brainerd Dispatch2 / 2

As a metro-area firefighter and emergency medical technician, Judi Laurence made it through a male-dominated profession on a 5-foot, 3-inch frame by using her strength of body and mind.

When she first began to feel lumps in her neck in 2009, she had a gut feeling—her own little inner voice—telling her it was going to be serious. Even so, it was hard to believe. She was an active mother of three daughters. Two of the three had started college. She worked with National Animal Search and Rescue teams traveling across the country to rescue pets during disasters.

"I was extremely healthy," Laurence said. "I never expected anything to happen to me."

Looking back there were small signs, fatigue and feeling chilled.

But tests confirmed her instincts. It was cancer. She would ultimately have a portion of her thyroid gland and the lumps removed. She faced the surgery and treatments and kept knowledge of the diagnosis to a small circle of friends. After more than three decades as an EMT, Laurence said she didn't want to be seen as a patient or as someone with physical faults, who wasn't quite as strong or capable as she had been. She didn't want to seem weak. She covered the scar on her neck with turtlenecks and high collars. She kept silent on what she was going through. She allotted herself five minutes to cry about it and then was determined to move on keeping it to herself.

Looking back on it now, Laurence said that was a big mistake.

"I went through that cancer and I felt like I had to hide it," she said. "I was very uncomfortable talking about it and I didn't want anyone to know about it—and I suffered. It was very difficult. I needed to talk to somebody about it and I should have."

In the aftermath of the thyroid cancer, Laurence pushed herself. She ran her first 5K. She completed a triathlon and has since replicated those efforts multiple times.

"I wanted to become stronger and stronger," she said. "Not necessarily physically, but mentally. I was too stubborn to let anything take me down."

And then it happened again. A spot, a tiny round dot, on the back of her leg activated her inner voice. It seemed inconsequential, but she felt it was something more. Her doctor thought it was normal as well, one of those many changes to one's skin. But it wasn't there three months earlier. Laurence was convinced it should be taken off. Her doctor removed the spot and sent the tissue in for testing. She was right. A week later she learned she had stage 2 malignant melanoma that could eventually kill her. Laurence said she was lucky she was aware of her own body and had a doctor who would listen to her. And this time she faced the cancer differently. She made a call to the American Cancer Society and talked to the welcoming ear on the other end.

"At that point I was much more open about it and I talked to people who had been through it," Laurence said. "It was much, much easier to go through it when I did open up and talk to people. ... It was much better."

Just last week, for the first time since 2012, Laurence wore shorts in public, meaning the 5-inch scar from the removal of skin and muscle from her calf was visible. The surgical procedure was on the upper portion of her calf almost behind the knee. She needed to use crutches for an extended period as a result. For an active woman, it was a setback. She wasn't able to do the training with the rescue team.

"Talking to people made it so much easier," Laurence said. "It was much better an all around much better situation. ... It's OK to open up about it. People will listen and be there for you."

The first time, Laurence said she felt so closed in from the self-enforced silence.

"I don't know if my pride was in the way. I didn't want anyone to know I had anything," she said. Laurence was back to doing her races and being physically active. Then, last spring, a regular checkup found bad cells in a pap smear. Treatment followed and three months later the precancerous cells were still there. A full hysterectomy followed. But the cancer didn't take her firefighting or EMT job from her.

The Girl Scout leader who enjoys works with girls and women with the message they can strive to be whatever they want, has an additional message now. It's one she'll share this coming weekend as the honorary cancer survivor at the American Cancer Society Relay for Life event in Brainerd. Laurence said speaking to others and not bottling everything up made all the difference in being able to handle the dreaded diagnosis of cancer.

"For me it really helped," Laurence said. "It was like I was this tight little ball," she said of keeping it silent.

Mary Crenna, Relay for Life event lead who is also a thyroid cancer survivor, said studies shows talking about it does help—even if it's personal friends and family so they know and can help. Crenna noted the American Cancer Society staffs a phone number, so there is always someone to talk to.

Laurence said she knows opening up may not be the answer for everyone, but it made a difference for her. And now she's urging everyone, men and women, to be proactive with their health and get the recommended yearly checkups that can catch cancer when it can be treated more easily and successfully.

The annual Relay for Life event is perhaps most notable for its luminaries lighted for lost loved ones and cancer survivors. Relay for Life has sometimes been the lesser known even when compared to its Race for the Cure cousin. But in recent years, the event has grown into its own with more activities, music and entertainment while the teams of two to 20 walk the path lighted by luminaries into the night to symbolize the around-the-clock fight by those with cancer. Crenna said this year will have a carnival-like atmosphere. They'll have the telescope from Central Lakes College available for stargazers. The event includes a silent auction with gift certificates from many of the local businesses, including spa certificates, a portable fire pit, bicycles, dinner for two and even a ride to work or school in a fire truck.

New this year is a car show. There will be games for children and adults, including the hopping horses and body bumpers, where people are in an inflated suit. Haircuts will be available, as well as hair cuts for donations. Select Therapy will be there for foot massages. And a food truck will be on hand. A student at Central Lakes College made a metal eagle's head that will be on the silent auction.

Crenna said they've added a number of things and each year are working to make the event even better. Organizers are also putting up a memorial wall and are welcoming photos by email or the night of the event. Email photos to relayforlifecwc@gmail.com along with a description or saying.

As for the luminaries the event remains known for, Crenna said that remains the hallmark as a way to remember those lost and honor the living. "It's a special event that night."

Relay for Life of Crow Wing County

• The event is open to everyone. It stretches from 5 p.m. July 21 to 2:30 a.m. July 22 at the Crow Wing County Fairgrounds.

• Activities include a 6 p.m. July 21 opening ceremony with a parade of teams.

• At 7:30 p.m. a cancer survivor and caregiver ceremony is planned with personal stories and a balloon release.

• At 10 p.m. the luminaria ceremony remembers loved ones lost and those continuing to fight cancer. At 2:30 a.m., participants will take part in a closing ceremony and final lap with organizers hoping people will be inspired to take action against a disease that has already taken so much and so many.

• Relay For Life is the signature fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. Relay is staffed and coordinated by volunteers in more than 5,200 communities and 27 countries, the society reported.

• Luminary bags may be purchased for $10 and decorated.

• For more information, go online to www.relayforlife.org/crowwingmn or email relayforlifecwc@gmail.com and for "cancer information, answers and hope. Available every minute of every day" call The American Cancer Society at 800-227-2345.

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