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Students increase cancer awareness

October 23, 2009

UW-River Falls students are speaking out about how cancer has affected their lives for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Abby Maliszewski, a graduating senior majoring in marketing communications and journalism, dyes her hair pink in October for Breast Cancer Awareness month.

“I dye for those who’ve died,” she said, which includes recently losing her mom to breast cancer.

“After three-and-a-half years of chemo treatments, surgeries, radiation and bad news…she’s finally gone. And I say ‘finally’ because she wanted out so many times,” Maliszewski said.

“I couldn’t stand seeing her miserable, sick in her bed from the treatments, not able to sleep at night because her lungs hurt—the endless side effects of chemo,” Abby’s sister, Bayli Maliszewski, a sophomore majoring in marketing communications, said.

“I remember becoming afraid to call home after hearing discouraging results time and time again. I never really knew what to do, what to say, or who to talk to…I just didn’t think anyone could understand,” Bayli said.

“[Mom’s] cancer spread quickly, from breast to lungs to liver to brain…and shortly before 2 p.m. on Sept. 14, right after getting pampered by a nurse, her friend and parents, she took her last breaths. Dad, and my sister were in town doing some banking, and my brother and I were outside. Mom must have known that none of us were around; it was the first time in her last two or three weeks that all four of us were out of the room with her. And that’s when she died. She must have not wanted any of us to be there,” Abby said.

“There are times I flip open my phone to call home to tell mom about something funny that just happened…but I have to stop and remember that I don’t get that option anymore. I don’t get the convenience of asking her how long to cook a whole chicken. She can’t be my lifeline anymore. She’s not here. That’s the hardest,” Abby said.

“I do wonder why it had to be [mom] that was the victim of such a battle. But I also think that this reminds us just how important we are to each other. How life is fragile, how we shouldn’t take it for granted. It brought our family a lot closer…as down as this story may be, a little bit of good comes from every bad—it just might be hidden at first…but our family will get through it, even if we carry with us a hole in our hearts,” Bayli said.

UWRF has formed a new Conquer Cancer Club, where members know all too well the heartache the Maliszewski sisters are going through.

“We wanted a way to fight back against this disease,” Mary Virnig, a junior majoring in animal science and founder and president of the Conquer Cancer Club, said. “I decided to form the…club because, as a cancer survivor myself, I felt that there was no where for me to talk freely about my experiences, because let’s face it- cancer isn’t a huge talking point in the 18-26 age group.”

Virnig said the goals of the club are to “provide a place where it is okay to talk about cancer in your life and have people who have had similar life experiences there to provide support, raise awareness on campus that cancer can affect our age group, and that choices you make now can affect whether or not you get cancer and to help fight back against this disease in whatever way we can, through education, fundraising for cancer charities and volunteering at hospitals.”

In August 2006, Virnig was diagnosed with Neuroblastoma, “a form of cancer that starts in certain types of very primitive developing nerve cells found in an embryo or fetus” and “rarely found in children older than 10 years,” according to the American Cancer Society.

Virnig had plans to run cross country her freshman year for UWRF in fall 2006 when “her doctor felt a mass in her pelvis and sent her to get a CT scan. The scan showed what was thought to be a large ovarian cyst.” However, during surgery at the University of Minnesota the surgeons uncovered a ganglioneuroblastoma tumor. Various tests and scans were done and when she went back for the results they found that “the tumor had spread to her bone marrow in her left hip and femur. Also the tumor that was left was cancerous,” Virnig said.

In order to treat the cancer Virnig started chemotherapy where she would be an inpatient at the U of M for a week, then go home for two to three weeks, only to go back again for her next treatment.

“I did that for four months and then had another surgery to try to get the rest of the tumor…I had another month of the same chemo regimen then I had surgery to remove a mass in my lung before I could have an autologous stem cell transplant. The process of a transplant…is first to kill off all of the bone marrow in your body using the highest doses of chemo your body can handle without killing you for a week, then giving you about a four day rest. On day ten they reinfused my stem cells back into me.”

After staying in the hospital for another month, Virnig was to live at the Ronald McDonald House in Minneapolis. She lived there for 100 days, where she dealt with multiple infections, surgery to remove her gallbladder and six weeks of daily radiation treatment.

“Possibly the happiest day of my life was when those 100 days were up and I got to go back home. I was placed on a high dose of accutane that summer and was strong enough to start my freshman year here at UWRF in the fall of 2007.”

“The first semester went well and I stayed on the accutane but the cancer was still present in my bone marrow. Over winter break…I went out to San Francisco to receive a treatment that was in clinical phase two study that involved a new type of radiation and I had to be in isolation because I was so radioactive. This caused me to lose my hair again… so if you saw a girl with a bandana on with no hair underneath-that was me.”

At the end of the year, “the scans showed that my tumor had grown again. I was put back on chemo…I started off my sophomore year again with very little hair. I worked my schedule so that I would go to classes in the morning, and then get chemo in the afternoons…in spring semester I was changed to 2 weeks on chemo and 2 weeks off at a stronger dose. I would need periodic blood transfusions, so I would do those at night so I wouldn’t have to miss class. I continued that treatment until the end of spring semester 2009. This summer, because my blood counts were not getting back to safe levels within an adequate amount of time, I was taken off chemo for the summer to try to let my body recover,” Virnig said.

“At the beginning of this semester, I was on another clinical phase two trial with a new type of drug that wasn’t supposed to drop my counts much but I had so few platelets to begin with that the drug dropped them below the required amount to get the drug so I was taken off the trial,” Virnig said.

“I am now still waiting to get my counts back up to a place where I can receive some kind of treatment… I still have cancer but I feel very lucky to have been able to go to school through most of it.”

Virnig’s positive attitude towards life seems to be a common thread throughout the club members who have battled with cancer.

Kristin Schamaun, a junior majoring in animal science and member of the club, was diagnosed with bone cancer in March 2004. Her doctor found a tumor in her right knee roughly the “size of a lime,” Schamaun said. The cancer eventually spread to her lungs, causing her to have three lung surgeries.

After multiple tests, surgeries and chemo treatments, Schamaun said “Nothing was worse than being a freshman in high school,” because of her hair loss and the appearance of her several scars. Her scars don’t bother her as much as they once did, but what does still make her nervous is going back to her doctor for a check-up this December.

“It just goes to show that you’re not invincible and teaches you to stop taking everything for granted,” Schamaun said.

Caleb Peterson, a freshman majoring in broad field social studies, is also a member of the club. His doctor found a brain tumor in him before being cleared to attend college here at UWRF.

He was sent to the Mayo clinic where they performed several tests, and in August 2008, he had brain surgery. Following the surgery, he went through radiation and chemo treatments, causing him to lose his hair.

“[Having cancer] gives you a different perspective on life and shows you how trivial some things are from before,” Peterson said.

Kelly Van Haren, a sophomore majoring in elementary education, is also a member and Relay for Life chair of the club. She was diagnosed with papillary-thyroid cancer just days after her eighteenth birthday when her doctor found a lump on her thyroid. She had a needle biopsy done on her neck—what she describes as “the worst test ever”—in order to find out more about the lump.

She had surgery in July 2008, to remove the left side of her thyroid, where they had found cancer, which instigated surgeons to also remove the right side. She went through a radioactive iodine treatment, where she couldn’t be around anyone for three days, several series of tests, shots and blood work and will have to be on medication, because she no longer has a thyroid, for the rest of her life.

“[Having cancer] changes you altogether and shows you just how fragile life really is. I’m thankful for how lucky I’ve been,” Van Haren said.

The Conquer Cancer Club encourages UWRF students to support those affected by cancer by visiting the Caring Bridge Web site, where you can sign member’s guestbooks and participate in the 2010 Relay for Life in River Falls on March 26-27.