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Family and friends help father and daughter in fights against cancer

Breast cancer survivor Naomi Lundin (right) is the honorary survivor for the 2014 Relay for Life of Stevens County. She will be joined by her father, Gary Drum, who was recently declared cancer-free after his own battle against pancreatic cancer.

MORRIS – Last July, Naomi Lundin and her father, Gary Drum, walked together in the Survivor’s Lap at the American Cancer Society Relay For Life of Stevens County.

As a seven-year survivor of breast cancer, which she was diagnosed with at 38, Lundin was one of the youngest survivors. Drum, who was just finishing treatments for pancreatic cancer, was one of the most recent survivors.

“We were walking around that track and I said to him, ‘Who would have ever thought that we’d be walking around this track together as cancer survivors?” said Lundin.

“It was quite an experience,” said Drum.

This year, Lundin is the honorary survive of the Relay For Life of Stevens County, which will kick off on Friday, July 18 with the opening ceremony at 6 p.m. at Pomme de Terre Park.

A year before Lundin was diagnosed with breast cancer, she underwent gastric bypass surgery and lost about 100 pounds. She found a lump, almost by accident, one day just after Christmas in 2005. If she hadn’t lost weight, Lundin said she may not have caught the cancer in time.

“I was never sick – hardly ever had to be to the doctor – it’s just one of those life things, I guess,” said Lundin.

At 38-years-old, Lundin elected to undergo two lumpectomies, a procedure where only a tumor and surrounding tissue is removed, rather than the entire breast (a mastectomy). She started chemotherapy on Feb. 17, 2006, exactly one year after her gastric bypass surgery.

The eight rounds of chemotherapy were followed by six weeks of radiation. During the treatment, Lundin tested positive for human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2), a protein that promotes the growth of cancer cells that is caused by a gene mutation within the cancer cells. This mutation occurs in about 20 percent of breast cancer patients and increases the chances that cancer will return.  

To decrease her risk of developing cancer again, Lundin had ongoing infusions of a drug called herceptin.

“If I hadn’t had the drug, it’s almost 100 percent certain [the cancer] would have come back,” said Lundin.

Lundin faced another cancer scare a few years later when she noticed a swollen lymph node on her neck. With her history, doctors were cautious and suggested doing a biopsy. A needle biopsy came back positive for cancer. After four months and a couple of surgeries, doctors at the Mayo Clinic said the biopsy was a false positive.

Lundin said her family was an important support system throughout her treatments. During her chemotherapy treatments her mom, Darlene, drove from Morris to pick her up in Detroit Lakes to take her to the clinic in Fargo. After the treatment – when Lundin was feeling good because of the steroids – they’d visit the mall to go shopping.

When Lundin’s hair fell out, her entire family, on a whim, shaved their heads to show support.

“It’s easier being the one that is sick as opposed to watching the person being sick,” said Lundin. “You know how you feel and the person who is trying to help you doesn’t know how you feel. I think it’s easier being the sick one than watching your loved one suffer. I know it was really hard on my mom.”

The family’s support system was tested again in 2012 when Drum faced his own struggle with cancer.

On Feb. 12, 2012, Drum woke up in the middle of the night feeling terrible. A CAT scan the next morning revealed pancreatic cancer.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the prognosis for pancreatic cancer is generally poor. Even with an early diagnosis, the cancer spreads quickly. In Drum’s case, the tumor’s location may have saved his life. The sickness that sent him to the doctor was jaundice, caused by a bile duct blocked by the cancerous tumor. In a slightly different location, the tumor could have continued to grow unnoticed.

“I think the day they found [the tumor] when they did is the day I won the lottery,” said Drum.

Drum was sent straight to the Mayo Clinic where doctors said they could operate. In many cases, pancreatic cancer is detected too late for surgical treatment.

The next week – after Gary and Darlene, his wife of 47 years, braved the drive to Rochester in a blizzard – doctors performed a pancreatoduodenectomy, more commonly known as the Whipple procedure, to remove the top four inches of Drum’s pancreas and reconstruct sections of the small intestine, bile duct and pancreas.

Drum said the doctors and staff at the Mayo Clinic were “just awesome.” He was up walking the day after surgery and was sent home early to begin his chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

On his last day of radiation treatments in Fergus Falls, Drum showed up to the clinic in a graduation cap and gown. After a big hug to the nurses, they took a group photo and sang "Kumbayah.”

After his treatments completed, Drum said he “never bounced back,” continuing to lose weight and never getting energy back.

But he kept trying to work anyway. Once, he was almost crushed by a hay bale in his barn. Another time, he got stuck under a new stall he was installing.

“I kept my angels busy,” said Drum. “That was my outlet, to keep working. … I did what I could do.”

“We kept saying, if he’s not going to die from this, we’re going to kill him,” joked Lundin. “He’s still not a great patient – he doesn’t listen very well.”

In October, Drum ended up in the emergency room again. The port that was used for chemotherapy treatment had caused a blood clot and he’d come down with a blood infection. After another week at the Mayo Clinic, Drum came home. He’s been slowly on the mend since. A CAT scan in May 2014 showed that he is cancer free.

The support of friends and the greater Stevens County community has been important to the Drum family.

When Lundin thought the cancer might have returned, a group of Drum’s friends and co-workers with Stevens County made a trip up to Devil’s Lake to help Lundin with some remodeling and home improvement projects for a weekend. They collected enough donations to pay for fuel and lodging, and their wives sent food and beer.

“I didn’t even know this was going on … They said, ‘This is all for you’ and I just started bawling,” said Lundin.

When Drum went down to the Mayo Clinic before his surgery, friends came over to their recently-remodeled home to work on finishings and clean up the construction mess.

Both Lundin and Drum said they didn’t think they would die while they were sick. Lundin knew that she needed to survive for her daughter, while Drum focused on putting one foot in front of the other.

“It doesn’t make me any stronger than the guy next to me or lady next to me,” said Lundin. “You have to just decide you’re going to do it and get through it and you do. It’s changed my outlook. … You notice things that you didn’t before. You don’t things for granted as much.”

About the Relay for Life of Stevens County

This year’s Relay for Life will begin on Friday, July 18 with the opening ceremony at 6 p.m. at Pomme de Terre Park. After Lundin speaks, there will be honorary laps around the park for survivors, caregivers and teams.

This year, there are 19 teams registered for the Relay. Organizers are hoping to raise a total of $65,000 to help fight cancer. Over the last five years, the Relay for Life of Stevens County has raised more than $305,000 for the American Cancer Society.

Other events during the Relay for Life include a silent auction and performances by the MAHS Drumline, Hancock Danceline and SHUG.

At 9:30 p.m., the luminaria surrounding the track – dedicated to friends and loved ones affected by cancer – will be lit. These candles help light the track through the night.

The final lap will take place at 4:30 a.m., with a closing ceremony and breakfast at 5:30 a.m.