Msgr. Don Schmidt opened the Relay For Life walk on Friday, July 11, encouraging the audience to "Fight Back" against cancer.BRETTA GRABAU/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWSPAPER GROUP
Msgr. Don Schmidt opened the Relay For Life walk on Friday, July 11, encouraging the audience to "Fight Back" against cancer.BRETTA GRABAU/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWSPAPER GROUP

As hundreds of Fillmore County residents came together in Harmony last week for the annual Relay for Life, there were moments of remembrance, recognitions of caring, celebrations of life and determinations to fight back against cancer.

Those attending the Relay and those who had donated funds prior to the event not only helped Fillmore County reach its $128,000 fundraising goal, but exceed it by over $8,500.

Sue Sikkink, one of the co-chairs for this year’s Relay, added that donations will be accepted through Aug. 31 and can be dropped off to Vicky Christianson or Sikkink at First Southeast Bank in Harmony.

In addition to walking the Relay for Life path, which wound around the community center parking lot and through the driveway, several events were held to celebrate the lives of cancer survivors and to show gratitude for their caregivers. Also, a special Balloons to Heaven program, allowed those attending the Relay to send special messages to their loved ones who died of cancer and to honor the gifts they have left behind.

Survivors’ and Caregivers’ Tea

During the Relay For Life Survivor Tea, Harmony native and cancer survivor, Nathan Osmonson shared his story and what he had learned from his journey with cancer with fellow survivors, caregivers and supporters present.

After being diagnosed at 15 with a disorder in which his body produced too many white blood cells, Osmonson began traversing to Mayo Clinic, eventually going up once a month. However, 10 years later, his doctor noticed an abnormality on his thyroid. Though they were not initially concerned, soon they were surprised to learn it was cancerous.

"After asking the doctor a ton of questions, we hung up and the first thing I did was call my dad and then my mom. I met with all my siblings that day to tell them in person what I had just found out," he said. "It was the most difficult thing I have ever had to tell them. I tried to stay strong for all of us but, when I started my pre-op appointments for a total thyroidectomy, that’s when it started to hit me that this was real."

Getting over the shock took some time, until the doctors began giving him statistics and the risks associated with that particular type of cancer. Then came the scare that the cancer might be spreading to his lungs.

Once he heard this, he went to see his regular doctor immediately. She saw him even though he had no appointment, and she, along with her staff, celebrated with him after discovering the results of the cancer spreading were false. Because of that scare, she took the initiative to schedule him for the first available surgery.

"Things moved pretty quickly after that and a million things started racing through my mind. I couldn’t help but think about the worst-case scenarios,” he admitted. “There was never a doubt in my mind that I was going to fight this, but at times I wondered whether or not I was going to win. That’s when having a supportive family and friends by your side is a true blessing," Osmonson noted.

The morning of his surgery, he realized this blessing. After a restless night and early morning preparing for the surgery, his whole family and some friends surprised him, gathering to support him in his journey. When they arrived at the hospital, they remained with him until the time came to go into surgery.

"I was so grateful that they showed up to support me," he expressed.

While he recovered from the surgery, he gradually regained the ability to speak and remained on a morphine drip that his young niece took charge of, ensuring he got enough medicine.

For the next few months, the challenge was to live with his body’s inability to accept synthetic hormones and he experienced a lot of side affects.

"I needed my support network at that time more than ever. There were doctor appointments all the time...I learned that even if it all happens at once, you have to do whatever it takes to find the strength to keep moving forward," he noted.

During that time, he again understood how important a support system is for someone dealing with health issues. It was vital to keep his own spirits up.

"Surround yourself with happy supportive people and you will feel happy and supported,” he added.

Another lesson Osmonson learned was what a joy it is to be alive and how short life can be.

"I was still just happy and thankful to be alive,” he said. “There is so much to live for and I can't imagine missing out on the things that have happened in the last four years. "

Osmonson had been a member of the "Shooting Stars" Relay For Life team for many years, but once he returned after having cancer, the Relay took on a new meaning for him. It encouraged him, knowing that he was not alone in his fight, that there is always hope and he could beat it.

One other lesson he learned was not to hide what he felt throughout his trials and he encouraged others to do the same.

"For the most part, I have always kept medical problems to myself. I was afraid that talking about them could be confused with complaining about them. And I have never been the kind of person to have the 'poor me' attitude," he said.

"I feel that more importantly, even than my journey, is to share the fact that it’s OK to feel afraid, or angry, or sad or whatever emotions overcome you as the cancer patient or the family and friends of a cancer patient,” Osmonson added. “Let yourself feel what you need to feel about the things you can’t control and then do what you can about the parts of life you do have control of.” 

As he ended his speech with thanks to his family, the community and his friends, he expressed wholehearted support for the American Cancer Society. While looking forward to the day where cancer does not exist, he promised to walk in the Relay every year to raise money for a cure.

Kicking off the Relay

A few hours later, Msgr. Don Schmidt spoke to the crowd for the opening ceremony of the Relay for Life. Schmidt served as the priest in the Harmony, Canton and Mabel Catholic churches for nine years. He was diagnosed with cancer and he, himself, continued to walk that walk with others.

In 2006, after a doctor's appointment, he was told to see his regular doctor the next day. The next statement of being sure to bring someone with him naturally told him the report he would receive was not good news.

After receiving the news of his cancer, he in turn told his family. Just like Osmonson's friends and family, they also showed tremendous support for him.

"My youngest sister has been there about 50 times for my appointments, and my older sister stayed with me night and day for two months after the stem cell transplant," he said.

What Schmidt focused on was encouraging everyone to fight back.

"Celebrate who you are and say yes to fighting back. Celebrating leads to remembering how loved you are. My way to fight back is to listen,” he added.

While he spoke on the stage, he pointed out a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson called "This is Our Wish for You" taped to the front of it and emphasized several words within it.

"Words like 'sadness' and 'doubt' show the difficulties in life and the negative side to cancer. But on the other side, words like 'friendship,' 'smile,' 'beauty,' 'rainbows,' 'sunshine' and 'laughter' show the positive part as a result of cancer,” he said.

Being affected by cancer can allow for unique friendships with someone going through the same troubles as another.

"We can see the beauty and sunshine that God has around us. And we can see the confidence and faith in our hearts through the cancer."

Balloons to Heaven

The final program before lighting the luminaries focused on remembering those lost to cancer. Members of the community and participants of the Relay for Life purchased helium balloons and decorated them with special messages to their friends and families who lost their battle with cancer.

KAAL-TV anchor Kate Constable, one of the masters of ceremonies for the event, read an introduction for the program, explaining, “During this time, let us acknowledge the emptiness we may feel and the sadness that comes from missing these special individuals. But sadness is not what we hope to focus on here tonight. Instead, let us celebrate those who have died from cancer and celebrate the part of them that continues to be with us. We are thankful for the gifts they have given us during their time here on earth — whether it be knowledge, love, family tradition or some other gift that has now become a part of us — gifts we continue to carry with us today.”

The Balloons to Heaven program also featured a solo by Allison Vander Plas of Mankato. She performed “Heaven Needed a Hero,” a song by Jodi Messina. The lyrics were written to honor soldiers who lost their lives in war, but it is a fitting song for those who lost their battle with cancer.

Following the song, there was a brief moment of silence and then nearly 250 balloons were released into the air.

The Relay for Life evening continued with the lighting of the luminaries, a performance by Bob Peters, Randy Long and Russ Guyer, karaoke, zumba and bingo.

Those still awake at 4 a.m. took a final lap around the Relay track and enjoyed breakfast together as organizers announced the totals raised and named the top fundraising teams.

The fundraising total as of Saturday morning was $136,630.94. The top team, with a total of $25,001.87, is the Bodacious Broads. The Shooting Stars team was the second team with a total of $17,002.10 and third top fundraising team was United with Hope with a total of $10,556.47.

The Relay for Life will move to Chatfield next year and this year’s co-chairs, Sikkink and Lavonne Mensink, passed the ceremonial baton on to next year’s co-chairs from Chatfield, Deb Jorgenson and Wendy Kirchner, as the 2014 Relay for Life came to an end.