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Relay for Life 2011: Erdahl takes on cancer with faith, fun and tons of fight

Kim Erdahl (front left) is the Stevens County Relay for Life 2011 Honorary Chair. With her are daughters Haley and Madison and husband Mark.

Great, big doses of faith and humor have helped Kim Erdahl not only survive but flourish since her breast cancer diagnosis last fall.

And Erdahl's no-nonsense approach to her life also has played a significant role in her fight to keep it.

A keen understanding of her family's history of breast cancer helped guide her decision-making during treatment. Her combination of faith, positivity and practicality is a powerful kit of tools she uses to educate her two daughters and others.

Not surprising since she's a teacher.

"I knew from my family history that this was something I might have to deal with," said Erdahl, this year's Honorary Chair for the Stevens County Relay for Life on July 15-16 at Pomme de Terre Park.

"Keeping my faith, keeping my humor, they are the best things to keep me going," she said. "Attitude is huge, huge, huge."

Erdahl's grandmother, Opal Bohlman, her mother, Marsha Picht, and an aunt, Cynthia Banken, all battled breast cancer.

Banken is a 13-year cancer survivor, and Bohlman died recently at 86 years old but lived 27 years after her first cancer diagnosis. Picht passed away at 52 years old in 2002 after a six-year cancer fight.

Erdahl's message is simple: "Be aware."

"I was going in for regular mammograms, but I couldn't really feel (the tumor) much," Erdahl said of her diagnosis. "But I assumed it was cancer because of my family history, so I wasn't that caught off guard. I said, 'You know what? You've got to deal with what you have to deal with.' "

And for Erdahl, that meant going after her cancer, hammer and tongs.

Erdahl elected to undergo a double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. When her physician expressed hesitation about an immediate reconstruction, she switched doctors and continued her treatment at Park Nicollet Health Services in St. Louis Park.

"They have done a phenomenal job, and it's an amazing place," Erdahl said. "I wanted to go to the parts store. I didn't want just any mechanic to do the job."

She began a four-month course of chemotherapy, and she also made daily drives to Willmar for six weeks of radiation treatments.

Erdahl had genetic testing done, and because of a 30 percent correlation between breast and ovarian cancers, she had a complete hysterectomy performed this spring.

She will endure one more surgery to complete her reconstruction, and she's been prescribed medication she will need to take for the next five years.

"Because of our history, I chose to do everything pretty extreme," she said. "I decided to do anything I can do to prevent anything more."

Erdahl said every cancer patient's situation is unique but that she is a proponent of approaching treatment with both barrels blazing.

"I know some people, when they're diagnosed, wonder: Should I do this or should I not do that?" Erdahl said. "I went with the aggressive side, and I wouldn't be afraid to do that."

But a cancer fight isn't all about sober treatment calculations and plans. Faith and fun are keys, too.

"I've always had a strong faith and that's helped me," Erdahl said. "Our family has just been keeping very positive. There's been a lot of joking and we talk about it like it's no big deal. We keep it light and positive, and because I have a very strong faith I don't let things get me too wigged out."

The chemo and radiation treatments didn't affect Erdahl physically as much as she expected. She also took a year-long medical leave from her teaching job in Cyrus to concentrate on healing and on her family, which includes her husband of 14 years, Mark, and daughters Haley, 13, and Madison, 9.

Erdahl enjoyed being able to slow life down, to rest during the day and then take part in her kids' activities later in the day. She also used the teachable moments to let her daughters know that they need to remain vigilant about their own health.

And Erdahl continued to live with the thought that God wouldn't ask anything of her that she wasn't equipped to handle.

"Yeah, it stinks to be 41 years old and dealing with that," she said. "But I knew I was pretty tough, too. I had a lot of energy."

Managing her cancer and recovery has been just one hurdle for the family in recent years. Four years ago, their home was destroyed by fire, and last year Erdahl slipped and suffered a broken ankle that required five pins and a plate to repair.

But the toughness, the belief and humor carried her and still do.

"We did have a string of bad luck there," Erdahl said with a laugh. "They say you learn from all these things. I must have been a slow learner."