Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

“It could be cancer, but you’re too healthy” August 7, 2010

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Layton Fossum, cancer survivor, poses with a luminary bag given in his honor at the Straight River Stroll in Faribault Friday night.

MEET LAYTON FOSSUM. Two years ago the Northfield man suffered from a raspy throat, a hearing loss and then a twitch in his face.

Must be a virus, the doctors initially told him. But the then 45-year-old persisted and eventually was diagnosed with a very rare form of cancer with a name he struggles to pronounce. So he simply says “head and neck cancer.”

After a 10 ½-hour surgery that was supposed to take three, he emerged with 40 fewer lymph nodes, but thankful to be alive. Next he would explore his post-operative treatment options, traveling to Houston, Seattle, Illinois and California before finally settling on radiation at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Zion, Illinois.

Through-out his journey, this Malt-O-Meal employee who missed six months of work due to his cancer and is happier than ever now to go to work, has remained positive. Even today he can joke about his experience. “I told my wife I’m worth more. I have gold in me,” Layton tells me Friday night at the Rice County Fairgrounds in Faribault during the American Cancer Society Straight River Stroll.

Thousands gathered Friday evening at the Straight River Stroll at the Rice County Fairgrounds to raise funds for cancer research to remember, celebrate and pray for those touched by cancer.

Layton points to his right eye and the lump of gold in his eyelid. Because he no longer has facial nerves on the right side, he needs the weight to help close the lid, which will shut only when he closes the opposite lid.

Then Layton shows me his ear, which, too, was reshaped during reconstructive surgery to tighten his drooping face.

Layton has no hearing in his right ear, which was reshaped during reconstructive facial surgery.

Yet, despite all he has undergone, despite the changes in his appearance, Layton remains upbeat and eager to tell his story. He was invited back to Zion and spoke for 1 ½ hours to a roomful of suit-and-ties, he says.

Before his diagnosis two years ago, Layton was the picture of health, the last one you would expect to get cancer, a friend says.

He heard the same from doctors: “It could be cancer, but you’re too healthy.”

Still, he did have cancer. And Friday evening Layton was among those celebrating their cancer-free lives at the Straight River Stroll, a Relay for Life event to fund cancer research. As I walked beside him, switching from his right to left side so he could hear me, I marveled at this man who stopped often, bent low to read the names written on white paper bags in memory of, praying for and rejoicing with those who, like him, endured cancer.

Some lost the battle. Some won. Some are still fighting.

This team of kids set out luminaries by the wagonful.

Among the personalized bags, I discovered this especially touching one drawn by a child in celebration of a father's survival.

Words of encouragement for Mike Schulz.

A luminary honors Sandy Doehling, who died of breast cancer.

Kids and teens, even adults, lined up to have their hair spray painted at a booth to raise funds for cancer research.

A volunteer ratted and sprayed a girl's hair, all to raise monies for cancer research at the Straight River Stroll.

Kids could climb inside this race car, with a hood especially designed to recognize those who have endured cancer. The hood is placed on the car, which races at Elko Speedway, only for special occasions like the Stroll.

Faribault resident Jerry Kes led the Stroll as an honored cancer survivor.

As dusk settled, volunteers began lighting the luminaries which stretched and wound around the fairgrounds.

(This post is written in memory of my dad, who died of esophageal cancer in 2003; my nephew, Justin, who died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2001; and my mom, who is a breast cancer survivor.)

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling