JoAnne Agrimson
JoAnne Agrimson

Cancer is one poster JoAnne Agrimson never wanted to be on.

“I am a poster child for getting a colonoscopy at age 50, but because my mother was ill at that time, I waited until I was 51 – and Easter break – to have my first routine colonoscopy, where I was found to have cancer March 31, 2010, at Winona Health,” recounted Rushford-area resident Agrimson.

Agrimson will be featured as the guest speaker of the Fillmore County American Cancer Society (ACS) Relay for Life survivors’ tea. The event will be held Friday, July 28, at Rushford Lutheran Church in Rushford. It will kick off the night-long event, which will include many activities to raise funds for cancer research and patient services.

Agrimson recalled, “The caregivers in the surgical ward did a pre-surgical workup just after surgery so my husband, Keith, and I did not have to drive the 70 miles round-trip for another appointment prior to surgery. That was just one of the many reasons I am still thankful to the staff there. Dr. Hans Zinnecker performed a hemicolectomy, taking approximately 11 inches of colon out the next week, on April 8. After examination, I was found to have been at stage two, but a hole in the colon had formed, so 36 lymph nodes were tested and found to be free of cancer. Whew! Stage two meant I could choose chemo or not; stage three would’ve meant more treatment. Apparently, testing 36 lymph nodes may be overkill – my sister, an oncology nurse, said her doctors told her 15 to 18 nodes is the norm. I reminded her that this is rural Minnesota, where lots of people were cheering me on.”

Agrimson credited the medical professionals who treated her and her community with saving her life and her spirits.

“We are blessed to be in this area because of all the medical centers that are filled with many of our friends and neighbors,” she said. “While I stayed at Winona Health, I was overwhelmed by the compassionate staff, including some former students and parents of students, particularly my cancer care coordinator, Marie Luhmann. The atmosphere was charged with positive energy!”

Agrimson added that she had many friends who visited her and brought her food after her surgery. Prayer groups and church friends sent prayer shawls and hopeful messages.

“It was the best and worst experience I have had in my life,” she said. “Since then, I try to be conscious of choices I make in diet and exercise so that I can continue to be healthy and strive to help others who have been diagnosed with cancer or other difficult diseases.”

Agrimson, who retired from teaching at Rushford-Peterson Middle School two years ago, is now doing well and hopeful that she won’t have to hear the word “cancer” from her doctors for quite some time, if ever again.

“The cancer has not returned, though I have had stomach polyps removed. Because there was no history of colon cancer in my family and I haven’t had any problems with subsequent colonoscopies – five to six in the past seven years – I can now wait five years for my next checkup,” she said.

Agrimson pointed out that one complaint, which can be an indicator that cancer has returned, is a pain in the side.

“Obviously, if there is ever a pain in my side, there is a tendency for me to panic, but I settled my fear of dying during the wait between diagnosis and surgery,” she said. “I had a fairytale childhood with lots of love and fun, my husband is phenomenal, my children are amazing and my friends are kind and generous, and my career as a teacher enabled me to use my talents and creativity every day.”

She noted that she had felt her life had already been a success by the time she was 51, and she asked herself, “How many people can say their lives have been this wonderful?”

Then, as a Christian, Agrimson realized that her sadness was not for herself, because she was in a “win-win situation.”

She explained, “If I lived, I would have a bright future, and if I died, I would have a bright future. My sadness was for my family and what they would go through without me.”

The survivor related that she’s pleased to be chosen to address other survivors at the Relay tea, to inspire and to help others make the decision to take better care of themselves.

“It’s an honor to speak at the tea and share my story so that others can remember that the diagnosis of cancer is not automatically a death sentence,” she said. “Some people actually do not go in for checkups because they are scared that they might be diagnosed with cancer. If you wait too long for a diagnosis, the path to remission or cure may not be as smooth as mine.”

Agrimson admitted that she had ignored her symptoms because they were vague. “I was tired and I craved ice and four-packs of red, orange and yellow peppers from Rushford Foods,” she said. “But if I mentioned that I was tired, everyone else said, ‘Me, too.’”

At the time, Agrimson said she was also helping to care for her mother who lived 240 miles away and she was teaching English and language arts full-time at Rushford-Peterson Middle School.

“Who wouldn’t be tired?” she asked. “But I needed to go to bed by 8 p.m. and really had to think about getting out of the chair to do so. My iron levels were so low that my body had developed pica – thus the craving for chewing ice – and the urge to eat peppers. The peppers are packed with vitamin C, which aids in the absorption of iron. So the message is this – listen to your body! See your doctor if your body is acting strangely!”

The possibilities for the coming years may be undefined, but Agrimson plans to make the most of her days through simply being who she is and by taking part in the Relay for Life.

“Being a farm wife and helping out with my grandchildren, my extended family and singing in our Christian group HWY 30 passes the time beautifully,” she said. “My small writing group in Lanesboro is a fun outlet as well. Finally, our small church, Arendahl Lutheran, keeps me busy with quilting, Bible study and fundraising and improvement projects.”

She added, “My younger sister has been an oncology nurse for over 20 years, working in many different settings. She continues to be excited by all of the new treatments made possible by research. Her testimony makes me hopeful that Relay for Life can and will make a difference in someone’s life this year. Meanwhile, I do rejoice in each new day and work to be a blessing during whatever time I may have left.”

And this year, that means that “being a blessing” includes being the survivors’ tea speaker.

“Though I have helped with Relay for Life by purchasing luminaries and working at fundraisers for Shari Boyum’s team, United with Hope, this is the first year I have actually joined the team,” Agrimson said. “The teams, and particularly the Stennes family members who are working to host the Relay for Life in Rushford, are so generous with their time and energy that it is bound to be an inspiring event.”

The Rushford Relay organizers, with chairpersons Jim Stennes and Beth Tudahl, extended an invitation to survivors to attend the Fillmore County Relay for Life survivors’ tea at Rushford Lutheran Church in Rushford from 4 to 5 p.m. on Friday to enjoy fellowship and to take in Agrimson’s story of affirmation and encouragement.