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Relay for Life Honorary Survivor: Jeannie's story

Jeannie Hoverud of Belgrade is a 14-year survivor of kidney cancer. She, along with Emily Johnson of Willmar, below, will be the honorary survivors at the 2015 Kandiyohi County Relay for Life. (Tribune photo by Jacob Belgum)1 / 2
Jeannie Hoverud, a cancer survivor, poses with her daughter Jennifer Boyle at a recent Relay for Life event. (Submitted photo) 2 / 2

Kandiyohi County’s 2015 Relay For Life event is July 24. It is also an anniversary for its honorary survivor.

Fourteen years ago to the day, Jeannie Hoverud learned she had kidney cancer.

Kidney cancer occurs most often in people over 40. Males are twice as likely to contract it, and a genetic history of the disease boosts its odds of appearing. Hoverud was a 21-year-old female whose family (that she knows of) has no history of any kind of cancer.

She is now 35 and has already lived 13 years longer than her original prognosis indicated.

She has been involved with Relay For Life for the last few of those years, captaining her Cowgirls Kickin’ Cancer team.

The diagnosis

At 21, she, like every young person, had dreams. She was one year away from earning her degree. She would become a psychologist and a mother. Today, she works at the Willmar Post Office. She cares for a daughter she did not birth.

At 28, she earned her degree. She did, essentially, become a mother. As for the rest of her aspirations?

“None of (them) came true,” she said.

She was seeking a job after her junior year at Southwest State University (now SMSU) in Marshall. Its application required a physical. Doctors found a high protein count in her urine and guessed that lupus was the cause. A week later, further tests revealed the more sinister source.

“I honestly felt like ‘Oh, it’s no big deal. I’m just going to go in to get it taken care of, and it’ll be fine,’” Hoverud said of her initial reaction to the news.

A year later, reality crashed upon her: despite the instant removal of her kidney and extensive radiation and chemotherapy, her treatment had not worked. The cancer persisted.

“You get scared, and you think ‘oh my gosh, what’s going to happen?’,” she said. “But I wouldn’t allow myself to think that it wasn’t going to work.”

She knew then that her life would never be the “normal” existence she had anticipated.

Life with cancer

After Hoverud left college, cancer treatment was one of few constants in her life. She initially moved back to the Starbuck area to live with her parents, but their relationship quickly strained. She believes cancer’s pervasive, helpless feeling caused its deterioration. She soon moved to St. Cloud to be closer to her treatment center.

Her apartment had a nurse on hand, and its purpose was to house patients with medical maladies. Among them was a man who had cancer which was in remission. Hoverud fell in love with him.

They dated for a year — long enough to become engaged. They knew the “till death do us part” might come quickly. They both had cancerous cells, after all. But their relationship ended more quickly than either could have imagined. So quick, in fact, that marriage never came.

A drunk driver saw to that.

Two months before they were to marry, Hoverud’s fiance died.

The incident shocked and pained Hoverud more than her cancer diagnosis had.

“He beat cancer to be killed in a senseless way like that,” she said. “He was my support with the cancer. I felt like I could deal with the cancer as long as he was there with me. Now that he was gone, it was ‘now I have to face this by myself.’”

The drunk driver, an 18-year-old woman, received a fine, six months of house arrest and two years of probation. She never reached out to Hoverud.

“Now I’ve forgiven her,” Hoverud said, “But I don’t think the law is always fair, because I obviously lost a lot more than she did.”

It’s easier to forgive when things are going well, and, for a while, Hoverud’s fortunes seemed to be turning.

Life in and out of remission

At 26, after four years of periodic treatment, her cancer entered remission.

Soon after her fiance died, the apartment once again proved a single’s delight. In time, she met another man, Gary Verhoeff, a quadriplegic. The two fell in love and wanted to marry. Once again, the law did Hoverud no favors, and a legal marriage proved nearly impossible.

“He would lose out on all of his assistance that he gets,” Hoverud said. “So because of financial things, we can’t be married by the law, but we’ve been living together for eight years here in Belgrade.”

The eight years have been happy, but they may have been more sublime had Hoverud’s cancer not vengefully returned two years after entering remission. It had spread everywhere.

She still received some treatment, and her goals changed once more. She was raising a daughter, Jennifer Boyle, whose custody she had attained when Jennifer was 4, and taking care of her husband (law be damned). For years, they have been her reason to wake up in the morning.

“He can’t get out of bed unless I do,” Hoverud said. “So that’s the motivation I need. I have a purpose in life: I have to take care of these people.”

The other loves of her life

Jennifer Boyle entered Jeannie Hoverud’s custody at age 4 because her biological mother suffers from spina bifida, a birth defect which doesn’t allow a baby’s spinal cord to develop properly. It left Boyle’s mother incapable of caring for her daughter.

Jennifer always knew her second mother, Jeannie, was sick, but she could not comprehend the disease’s severity until around age 13.

“It’s not something you can really get used to,” she said. “You never know, ‘Is she going to be there when I get married? Or even when I graduate high school?’”

The understanding of her second mother’s disease, along with her second father’s medical issues, have forced Jennifer, now 16, to age more quickly than the average teen.

“I’ve kind of learned at a younger age to live in the moment,” Boyle said. “It’s just important that you make the most of the time you have no matter if you’re 70 years old or 12, 15.”

“I hope she doesn’t feel like she’s missing out on being a normal teenager, that she’s had to grow up too fast,” Hoverud said. “I try not to let my sickness interfere in her life any more than it already does.”

Boyle plays basketball and runs track for BBE High School. She also loves riding horses, a passion Hoverud shares, even though she cannot ride much anymore because she is missing a vertebrae in her back.

Hoverud still surrounds herself with the animals, with a dog, too. Baili, a Maltese, was a gift from her late fiance. He is nearly 11. Maltese usually live between 12 and 15 years.

“He’s like everything,” she said.

“He has to live as long as I do,” she added jokingly.

Hoverud must leave him behind when she leaves for the Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Chicago, where she is beginning to receive treatment and where doctors will “hopefully come up with some options.” Doctors are hoping she can successfully undergo a stem cell transplant to replenish her bone marrow. If they cannot find a stem cell match, they say she will have one year to live.

The road ahead

“I know that this disease will eventually take my life, but I’m hoping to get time out of it, I guess,” she said. “I want to see my daughter graduate. That’s my goal: to know that she’s going to be OK on her own.”

Hoverud also hopes people realize that those with cancer offer more than the disease can take away. She struggled for years with the idea of telling her story because she doesn’t want to sound like a victim, someone who welcomes pity.

It’s an internal mental clash. If she tells her story, pity -- which she despises -- will sometimes be inevitable. She prefers compassion. She doesn’t want to hermit from the world and portray herself as someone who is losing to cancer.

“You don’t want to be that person that’s known for cancer and nothing else,” she said. “I’m more than cancer.”

So Hoverud will tell her tale as a survivor, a word she would not use to describe herself when approached about being the honorary survivor.

Hoverud was at a meeting discussing plans for the 9th annual Kandiyohi County Survivor Celebration Dinner. Someone had to offer a speech to kick off the April event, and, after hearing nobody else volunteer, she said she would do it. The committee accepted her offer and asked if she’d be the Relay for Life honorary survivor, too.

The latter request shocked her. Shouldn’t the survivor be someone who has fought cancer and “won,” someone who was in remission or cancer free? In the process of writing her speech, she realized that she was a survivor simply by getting out of bed every morning.

As a mother, as well as the spouse of a quadriplegic, she had no choice. Still, she’s not totally convinced she should be “honored.”

“I’m sure there are people who have done greater things with their life, and been more influential and inspiring,” she said.

Other people can debate that. All Jeannie Hoverud can do is continue to live, fight and survive.

“There’s been plenty of times when I’ve said, ‘Enough is enough. I’m done,’” she said. “There will come a point when I’m ready to say ‘I’ve fought enough, and I’m ready to go,’ but I’m never going to give up.”

RELAY FOR LIFE tab: For more on the Relay For Life event next Friday see the special tab in Saturday’s paper.

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