People from all walks of life will gather together Saturday, June 8, for the Winneshiek County American Cancer Society Relay for Life.

The event will take place at the Decorah High School track, beginning at 3 p.m.

"Relay is a unique opportunity for our community to come together to celebrate people who have battled cancer, remember those we've lost and fight back against the disease," said Teresa Dehning, volunteer for the Winneshiek County event.



Survivor Chairs

Each year, the local chapter of the American Cancer Society asks one or more area cancer survivors to serve as "honorary survivor chairs" for the event.

This year's chairs are Kaitlyn Quandahl and Nancy Sojka, both of Decorah.

Kaitlyn, age five, is the daughter of Cory and Selina Quandahl. She has one little sister, Addison.

Kaitlyn was diagnosed last July with Pontine Glioma, cancer of the brain stem. She was treated at the St. Jude's Childrens Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. She is currently in Hospice care at Winneshiek Medical Center.

Friends are invited to follow her journey on caringbridge.org.



Family history

Sojka said when she joined family and friends to walk with her mother, Barb, a cancer survivor, at Relay for Life in Atlantic (Iowa) in 2008, little did she know that a year later she would be diagnosed with exactly the same type of breast cancer her mother had.

Because of her mom's cancer, Sojka said she had been faithfully receiving mammograms at Winneshiek Medical Center since the age of 40. In 2009, however, the technician reported something unusual.

"The radiation saw calcium deposits, which occur naturally, but they had been moved by some unseen force since my last mammogram," said Nancy.

Following an ultrasound and needle biopsy, Sojka was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). It was so widely spread in the breast that Dr. Landercasper, the breast surgeon at the Gundersen Breast Care Clinic, recommended a lateral mastectomy.

"I was confident in his recommendation. He is a very experienced surgeon, plus he is supported by a committee of 10 specialists who discuss every cancer diagnosis and formulate a recommended plan of treatment. It was like getting a second, third, fourth ... tenth opinion," she said.

Sojka had her first surgery in November of 2009, including cosmetic surgery.

"Right after my diagnosis, a friend recommended I set up a Caring Bridges site - a website where I could write and share what was happening with friends and relatives. It was so helpful for me to be able to process what was happening, and it made communicating with those who wanted to know very simple," said Sojka.

Following her first surgery, the pathology report showed something suspicious in one area, so a second surgery was required.

While the second surgery was "quick and easy" according to Sojka, a few days later, she experienced a blood clot in her kidney. She was treated with blood thinners in the hospital for five days and continues to take blood-thinning medication to ward off another clot.



Three-year checkup

Following Sojka's second surgery, doctors agreed no further treatment was necessary, as her lymph nodes were clear.

But during her three-year checkup and annual mammogram last fall, a new lump was detected. The recommended treatment for the recurrence was a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. The biopsy showed her cancer was stage one.

She had a lumpectomy during the first week of October and started chemo in La Crosse, Wis. At the end October, she switched to Winneshiek Medical Center for three more infusions.

"It was so nice to be a few minutes from home after the treatment, rather than driving to La Crosse," she said, adding she took a proactive approach to expected hair loss by having her hair cut extremely short after the first treatment.

"I had a wig from the Cancer Center (at Gundersen) and friends provided me with hats and scarves to cover my balding head. I had anti-nausea drugs to keep me from throwing up and plenty of resting time. Each treatment was followed by two days of feeling really good, then three not so good.

"The chemo affects fast-growing cells, so skin and fingernails and the digestive system from the mouth on down were the most trouble to deal with," she said.

During the months she was receiving chemotherapy, Sojka avoided large groups of people to avoid catching something. She continued to cross-country ski and attend weekly yoga classes at the Yoga Studio in Decorah.

"Breathing and focusing were both helpful in the recovery process," she said.

"I finished the chemo in early January and began daily radiation treatments in La Crosse at the end of January. Organized by my friend and transportation director, Ellen Macdonald, friends drove me to the 30-minute appointments each day for five and a half weeks.

"I was amazed at the care that was taken to be sure the radiation was aimed so exactly at the area where the cancer cells had been and avoid my heart and lungs ... The recovery from the radiation treatment was quick with the lotions and burn treatments provided," she said.





A special experience

Sojka said one of the most poignant experiences on her personal journey with cancer was to be able to visit with the pathologists who evaluated the cancer cells found in her first surgery.

She was one of nine patients selected for a special project to help the pathologists "put a face" with the cells they look at so carefully.

"During my visit to the lab, I was able to view those cells through a microscope with the pathologists ... I think everyone should get to see those cells that cause so much trouble," she said.

Sojka's photo, along with the eight other patients, is printed on a poster alongside a picture of the cells, for doctors and patients to see when they visit Gundersen.



What's next?

"My only job now is to keep growing my new hair and stay healthy," said Sojka.

A retired art teacher who continues to work part time at North Winneshiek, Sojka also belongs to the Beta Tau chapter of Beta Sigma Phi, serves on the Decorah Tree Board and the Oneota Film Festival Board.

"I also maintain websites for Winneshiek County Habitat for Humanity, Iowa Alliance for Arts Education and the Art Educators of Iowa," she said.

In her free time, Sojka and husband, Ted, also a retired art teacher, sail multiple sailboats at the La Crosse Sailing Club.

"We cruise and race weekly. For many years, we agreed to race against each other on separate boats, but last summer we decided that if we could stay married for 40 years, we should be able to race together. We began the season at the back of the fleet; but at the regatta at the end of the season, we took second place."

Sojka also enjoys quilting, needle-felting, stained glass, painting, gardening and calligraphy.

She and Ted have two grown sons, Charlie and Mike.

As part of Winneshiek County Relay for Life Saturday, honorary speakers will share their stories at 7 p..m., and the luminaria and fight back ceremonies begin at 9 p.m.

"Many of the participants in Relay for Life are cancer survivors, which serves as a reminder that Northeast Iowa is not immune to this disease and that by participating in Relay, we are joining with the American Cancer Society's efforts to create a world with less cancer and more birthdays," said Dehning.

For more information, contact Dehning at 563-419-1069, visit Relay for Life of Winneshiek County on Facebook, or visit relayforlife.org/winneshiekcountyia.