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Relay for Life highlights community support against cancer

Mary Crenna (right), cancer survivor and event organizer, sits with the 2018 honorees Kimberly Jensen (left) and Brenda Marshik for the American Cancer Society Relay for Life of Crow Wing County Friday, June 15 at the Crow Wing County Fairgrounds. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

After years of routine checkups, when Brenda Marshik got the call from her doctor's office to come in and talk she knew it wasn't just to say congratulations on a clean bill of health.

But it was still hard to hear the words many fear, "You have cancer."

"My thing is they caught it early enough that it just started so I still had to have the surgery and radiation, but it hadn't advanced anywhere, it hadn't spread, it hadn't even been given a chance to," Marshik said. "So I guess my thing would be to do that annual exam."

With some suggesting waiting, even multiple years, between mammograms, she wonders where the breast cancer would have been had it not been caught on that checkup. But one word lingers in her mind when she considers it: Devastation.

Marshik is the honorary survivor for the annual American Cancer Society Relay for Life of Crow Wing County on Friday, June 15. At the relay fundraiser, participants walk along a luminaria-lit path into the night to symbolize the round-the-clock fight for those facing cancer.

Two years ago, Marshik's summer was dominated by cancer. The Little Falls resident was monitored every three months. In July of 2016, she received radiation treatments every day. After surgery, which removed the cancer and three lymph nodes, her prognosis is positive. Her co-workers at Brainerd Savings and Loan, all 21 of them, participated in her Relay for Life team. Marshik is thankful for the support. Her message to others is to take care of their own health. Marshik said she didn't feel tired or sick before her cancer diagnosis.

On her team page for Relay for Life, Marshik wrote: "'Let go and let God' has never been more empowering than through this journey ... now every day I wake up is a blessing.

"So thankful that the American Cancer Society, Relay for Life and other organizations have made a commitment to fund research, and offer the various support to cancer patients and their families. Why I relay ... is a way of showing my gratitude and supporting others."

Last summer, Marshik also survived a heart attack. She believes her survival is credited to getting out of bed even though she didn't feel well that day to help a friend and co-worker get from Little Falls to their jobs at Brainerd Savings and Loan. She was exhausted. Her arm hurt. But she didn't want to stay home that day. Seeing her deteriorating condition, the friend took her to get medical help. After those experiences, Marshik said she was ready to grab life with both hands, even moving to the lake home she always wanted.

"I just love life—no more holds on anything, just enjoying it," she said. "... I'm just happy to be alive."

Kimberly Jensen's cancer experience comes from a different and arguably more difficult perspective. She served as the caregiver for her teenage daughter. The 19-year-old, Sheyla Jensen-Boyes, was diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkin's lymphoma. Jensen is the honorary caregiver for Relay for Life.

Jensen said her daughter's cancer diagnosis came after countless trips to emergency rooms and doctors as the young woman complained of back pain and discomfort that was difficult to identify. She hadn't felt good since 2016 when her first symptoms showed up while she was in advanced individual training following her basic training at Fort Sill, Okla. Jensen said everyone looked at her daughter and saw an apparently healthy young woman still in her teens. They all told her she was fine, Jensen said.

"By the time she was diagnosed in January of 2017, her cancer had progressed rapidly," Jensen said. "She had tumors everywhere her lymph nodes were, and the news and diagnosis left us stunned, in shock, scared and wondering what her future would hold. ... Both Sheyla and I were just numb with the cancer diagnosis and hadn't the first clue about treatments."

Soon, she said, the University of Minnesota Health-Journey Clinic for pediatric specialties would feel like a second home. Chemotherapy seemed to have two reactions, bad days and really bad days. Jensen said her daughter was always sick and developed complications and infections that threatened her young life.

"I was devastated," Jensen wrote about the experience, noting she spent a lot of time in tears and wondering how her daughter could have "caught" cancer. As a mother, it left her feeling she had failed. Everyday household cleaners and products seemed to be toxic and potential silent killers. Jensen was constantly wiping everything down in bleach and water and vigilant about anyone who may be ill coming in contact with her daughter's compromised immune system. She also had to give her daughter medicines so wearing gloves and a mask herself and go through the fear of giving them to her child.

"It was very hard to watch her so sick all the time," Jensen said.

Along the way, Jensen said the little things are what helped her through it all.

"My message is gratitude," Jensen said.

A veteran specialist with Crow Wing County Veteran Services, Jensen said not being there to help her veterans caused her a lot of guilt. The veteran community hosted a benefit for her at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Brainerd post. Jensen described the turnout as amazing and noted it included her daughter's unit in the Minnesota National Guard. Jensen credited being able to stay at Hope Lodge in the Cities free of charge. Jensen said she wants others to realize there are resources out there to help them. Small touches, offering gas cards or bringing meals, coming in to clean, just being there to listen or sit with you at the hospital, are all ways to help.

"The little things really make a huge difference," Jensen said.

Being on the road between the Twin Cities and Brainerd took a toll. A year and a half later, Jensen said she still finds herself tired, numb and in awe of what her brave and strong daughter endured.

"Cancer has changed every part of our lives permanently, I think for myself and for Sheyla," Jensen said. "It is pervasive and invasive and effects everything in your life."

Now Sheyla is going to college. And at a time when she should have her whole life ahead of her, she has to worry about cancer. The first scans following chemo were good but Jensen said subsequent ones led to more lymph node removal and biopsies. Jensen said her daughter's after-cancer care discovered a brain tumor. Her daughter has gone on to be an advocate for the Lymphoma Society and recently testified before Congress about her experience, insurance issues and having cancer in the military, Jensen said.

"We could not have gotten through many dark days without the support of our family and friends," Jensen wrote of the experience. "We are overwhelmed by all the love. ... I am so grateful to our family, friends and the veteran community for everything they did for us. It made me realize that no one should ever be alone to go through their fight, their treatments and I believe all the support we received truly made a difference for my daughter's fight and for me. It allowed me to continue to be there for her as a caretaker."

Relay for Life of Crow Wing County

• The American Cancer Society Relay for Life raises funds to end cancer as teams of 2-20 people camp out and take turns walking around a path lit by luminaria, a candle set into an often decorated, weighted paper bag and placed in a row.

• The event is 5 p.m.-2:30 a.m. Friday, June 15, at the Crow Wing County Fairgrounds, 2000 SE 13th St., Brainerd. It is open to the public.

• The event includes entertainment, music, games and a silent auction.

• Opening ceremony is 6 p.m. with participants and survivors celebrating what they've overcome. The event kicks off with a lap with survivors and caregivers.

• Luminaria ceremony is hosted at dusk as loved ones lost to cancer are remembered and those who have fought or are still fighting cancer are honored.

• Closing ceremony and final lap is scheduled at 2:30 a.m. "Be inspired to take action against a disease that has taken so much."

• For more information—about the event or how to get involved—go online to www.relayforlife.org/crowwingmn or email to relayforlife@gmail.com.

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