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Couple shares cancer journey

Celebrating 50 years of being cancer free, Maggie Yerkes was diagnosed with thyroid cancer when she was a 23-year-old nurse in the Navy. Her husband Tony is a 16-year survivor of kidney cancer and a two-year survivor of prostate cancer. Both credit their faith in God with helping them on the journey through cancer. (Lorie Skarpness/Enterprise)

Park Rapids couple Maggi and Tony Yerkes know a lot about life after cancer. Both are long-term cancer survivors: Maggi for 50 years and Tony for almost 16.

The couple shared their story at Friday night's Relay for Life.

The couple moved to Park Rapids in 1971. Maggi had a career as a nurse in the community, while Tony worked as an anesthesiologist.

Maggi was diagnosed with thyroid cancer as a 23-year-old Navy nurse stationed in Jacksonville, Fla.

"When you're young, you don't think anything like that is going to happen to you," she said. "Fifty years ago, people didn't talk about having cancer. It was hush-hush."

At the time of her diagnosis, Maggi was dating a doctor. Over dinner, she told him she had recovered from a sore throat but was having trouble swallowing.

"After dinner, he checked my throat and told me to see the head of surgery in the morning," she said. "Back then scans were inconclusive but it showed a growth. They didn't know what it was at that point. Meanwhile, I received my orders to go overseas with the condition I have surgery first. That's when I learned it was cancer."

Tony was also a Navy nurse. He was working at Guam where Maggi was transferred just six weeks after her surgery.

Guam was an intermediary point for soldiers coming out of Vietnam. There was a 500-bed standard hospital and "the annex" with several hundred more beds.

"We had Medivac six days a week," she said. "They would range from 60 to 90 patients and we worked hard, hard hours."

Yet once they met, they still found time for building a relationship.

"We fell in love and quickly," Maggi said. "Tony asked me to marry him on day 10 after we met and I said, 'Yes.' When he met me, my scars on my neck weren't even healed."

Maggi continued being monitored in Guam. When a doctor there said he felt something and wanted to do a second surgery she said, "Oh, no, you're not cutting my neck again because I'm getting married and we're going back to the States." She had another scan at Philadelphia Naval Hospital that showed everything was clear.

The couple got married that summer, then returned to Guam to finish their duties.

"To every survivor, I want to say thank you for choosing to survive," Maggi said at Relay for Life. "And it is a choice. Whether you realize it or not, God has a plan for you, and your choosing to survive helps fulfill that plan, giving precious hope to the survivors yet to come."

During the last 50 years, she noted:

• The five-year survival rate for all cancers rose from 50 percent to over 70 percent for adults and 80 percent for children.

• Multi-drug treatments have reduced the harsh side effects of chemotherapy.

• Alternatives to surgery have developed to treat cancer, such as radiation therapy, immunotherapy, biological modalities and cancer vaccines, then unheard of, have proven amazingly successful.

• Diagnostic testing, then limited and often inconclusive, continues to advance with CAT, PET, and MRI scans and continuing research into early detection techniques.

In 1988, Maggi obtained her master's degree in nursing. She chose the path of clinical nurse specialist in oncology, working at the Park Rapids clinic.

Over the next 20 years, she counseled and educated patients and families about cancer and good health practices. She administered life-saving chemotherapy to patients, encouraging them, assisting them through the difficult times, and rejoicing with their successes. She was able to present professional classes to colleagues, and mentored others to follow a career in oncology nursing.

Tony's story

Tony also spoke at the Relay for Life about his cancer journey. He will celebrate 16 years as a survivor of kidney cancer in December, and is also a two-year survivor of prostate cancer.

After the Navy, Tony completed anesthesiologist training in St. Cloud. He accepted a position in Park Rapids in 1971, working at the hospital and Dakota clinic as well as independently.

At the time he was diagnosed with kidney cancer, Maggi was working in the oncology department, allowing her to provide both personal and professional support.

"I had the knowledge to help him through it from the professional side as well as being a caregiver and a spouse," she said. He had surgery just before Christmas.

"I still remember the day his pathology report came back," Maggi said. "There are two types of kidney cancer. One is called renal cell and of the two types, that is the better one to have. The pathology report came across saying his cancer was renal cell and I ran to get to the hospital and then ran up to the second floor to give him in the good news."

When Tony was diagnosed with prostate cancer, he had daily radiation therapy in Bemidji. Checkups have shown no sign of either cancer returning.

"We keep our faith and our prayers going," Maggi said.

Tony said his cancer journey taught him the importance of having faith in God, putting all of your worries in His hands and letting Him take care of you.

Tony also emphasized anyone who has concerns about possible cancer seek knowledge because the earlier the disease is detected, the better the outcome.

Advice about cancer

Maggi said for people who have a loved one with cancer, the most important thing is to let them be themselves.

"I used to conduct a support group and I always told people they are entitled to the gamut of emotions," she said. "You have to go through the stages of denial and acceptance. You're allowed to feel down, to cry or be angry. But what you do with those emotions is unique to you. Some days the person will feel bad. Help them through it. Listen to what they have to say. Some people don't want to talk about it."

She said cancer is no longer a death sentence. "The possibility of living a full life after being diagnosed with cancer is much better now," she said. "There was something in the news recently about an immunotherapy given to a lady with metastatic stage four cancer and she has been cured."

Some drugs target white cells, others platelets. "The cancer cell is a mutation," she said. "It sets up house and if it gets a blood supply it can grow. If we can block that, and the body's immune system stops that, it will be isolated, destroyed or hopefully prevented."

She recommends the National Institute of Health and American Cancer Society websites for patients seeking reliable information.

She also suggests patients talk to their doctors and nurses about alternative treatments, such as anti-cancer diets or other treatments. And most of all, keep fighting for a cure.

"When you put all of the Relay for Life events across the U.S. together, that's a lot of money for research," she said. "New discoveries in biologics and immunology are giving patients new hope."

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