RELAY FOR LIFE: Four-time survivor
More than likely, not a single family in the area has not been touched by cancer-either in a family member, close friend, co-worker or neighbor. But it would be hard to imagine one individual being impacted by the illness four times in just a few years.
Yet, that is what happened to Cindy Volk, a former Rugby resident now living in Minot. She is facing the trying times brought on by her cancer diagnoses with seemingly boundless faith in God, an upbeat attitude and a smile on her face. Volk will be the featured speaker at Rugby’s Relay for Life, Friday, June 3, at Johnsen Field. The opening ceremony will start at 7 p.m. and Volk will speak shortly thereafter.
“I have been at peace with all my cancer diagnoses,” Volk said. “I just give it to God.” But, she adds with a laugh, when she eventually gets to heaven she and God are going to have a nice, long talk.
Volk was initially diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2009. She underwent a bilateral mastectomy in Bismarck and six rounds of chemotherapy in Minot. The surgery caused her diaphragm to stop functioning and she had to do special exercises to restore function. While she was still recovering from the chemo, the Volk home was inundated by the 2011 Souris River flood. Because of the mold, dirt and toxic substances the flood left behind, Cindy couldn’t be in or around the house without a carbon mask. In addition, she was still having trouble breathing because of the diaphragm issue. With the help of friends and family the house was gutted and rebuilt.
In October 2012 Volk’s doctors discovered a nodule in her chest cavity which turned out to be the same kind of breast cancer she’d had before, even though she no longer had breasts. She was sent to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for surgery to remove the lesion, then came back to Minot for 33 rounds of radiation therapy.
But the most sobering diagnosis for Volk was in May 2014, when her doctors confirmed a very aggressive acute myeloid leukemia.
“I was given six weeks to live,” Volk said. “I was rushed to a Rochester hospital and started chemotherapy immediately.”
The only cure for her leukemia was a stem cell transplant, and her seven siblings were tested to see if one of them was a match. “I was blessed by God to have a brother and a sister that were complete matches all the way down,” she said. Based on age and health, her sister, Coleen Stutrud, of Barton, was chosen. “She is my hero,” Volk said emphatically.
Meanwhile, the first round of chemo was administered 24 hours a day for seven days. Because of the large number of cancer cells being knocked down, doctors were encouraged that they could do another round of chemo. She had to wait two weeks for her body to bounce back, then underwent the second 24/7 routine. This one caused her body to react with a rash, blisters and a fever so high she lost consciousness for periods of time.
The second round was followed by a bone marrow biopsy, which showed there was no sign of leukemia. If the cancer cells had not all been destroyed after the second round, Volk said, that would have been the end of her treatment and, almost surely, the end of her life. When she was strong enough, Volk was tested to see if her organs had been damaged, and was given the go-ahead for the transplant.
When the transplant was scheduled, Stutrud flew to Rochester, and doctors at Mayo Clinic put a port in her neck to harvest the stem cells. Three hundred thousand cells are needed for the procedure, and doctors said it would take three days to get that many. Amazingly, Stutrud’s system produced 500,000 cells in one sitting, an almost unheard of number. The next day Volk’s doctors harvested what are called ‘killer cells’ from Stutrud, to be administered to Volk in case her leukemia came back after the stem cell transplant.
On August 31, 2014, Volk was given chemotherapy to completely wipe out her stem cells, and a week later Stutrud’s cells were transplanted in a procedure in Volk’s sterile, self-contained room at the hospital. A few days later Volk was able to return to the house she and her husband, Dale, had rented in Rochester. She returned to the hospital regularly for monitoring, and the week before Christmas she was told they could go home to Minot.
While living in Rochester, Dale took over the roles of chauffeur, housekeeper, bill payer and any other job that needed doing. “Dale did everything,” Volk said. Since her system was so weakened, she could not take a chance of picking up any bugs, so Dale cooked all of their meals at home. “No microwaving. Everything had to be baked or boiled,” to kill the pathogens, she said. “No way would I have made it without him. He is a saint. All I had to do was carry the pain. He did everything else.”
Volk’s son, Chris, was married during the six months she was in Rochester. “That’s the only time I cried,” she said. “Dale went home for the wedding, and my sister came and stayed with me.”
In September 2015 recurrent breast cancer was found in an internal mammary node, and Volk returned to Mayo Clinic. Because of the large quantities of chemo and radiation Volk had received over the years, doctors decided to use a new radiation machine which targets the cancer spot and doesn’t send out radiation to a large area. Five rounds later she was sent home. “Everything seemed good,” Volk said.
But this past January Volk noticed nodules on her right forearm and once again headed to Rochester. Following tests and removal of the nodules, she was diagnosed with sarcoidosis, an autoimmune disorder which attacks organs. “Sarcoidosis isn’t curable but it can go into remission and it can be controlled,” she said. She was put on high levels of prednisone, which doctors later tried to wean her off. “But it flared up, and now I’m going to Rochester again.”
With the Rugby Relay coming up shortly, Volk said she assured organizers she will be there to speak. “Nothing’s going to keep me away from that,” she said, demonstrating once more her determination and positive disposition.
In Volk’s recounting of her journey, her strong faith comes through in every word. Her focus is on what she calls her ‘Three L’s’, Love, Laughter, and the Lord. “I truly believe that God brings good from all things,” she said. “You may not see the good, but just give it to God. Some people think cancer is about the patient, but it’s not. Cancer is about everybody that is around you. The people closest to you suffer just as much as you do.”
Volk isn’t certain the direction her speech will take June 3, but says she has many fun stories she will be sharing, and there will be plenty of all three of her ‘L’s’. The opening ceremony and Volk’s remarks will be broadcast on KZZJ radio.
Even with all the unimaginable diagnoses, the painful treatments and the uncertain future, Volk remains an optimist.
“We’re hanging in there,” she said. “We’ll take whatever the good Lord gives us. He’s gotten us through this.”
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