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Perham sisters, father survive cancer together

Sisters Sandy Erickson (left) and Lisa Dahl (center), along with their father, Jack Schmidt, were all diagnosed with cancer within one year of another. The family will serve as this year's honorary chairs for the East Otter Tail County Relay for Life. (EOT Focus-Submitted photo)

Lisa Dahl flipped through her old appointment book, filled with color coded icons and names of friends and family members scribbled inside each calendar box. Glancing over at her sister, Sandy Erickson, she pointed out the schedule of their former lives.

At first glance, it seems like any other pocketbook planner. But for Dahl and her family, it represents a time of struggle and triumph in their lives - each color and pen stroke indicating a trip to Fargo for chemotherapy or radiation treatments.

"It brings a lot of memories back," Dahl said.

It all happened in 2008. First, a trip to the doctor in April revealed that Erickson had stage 3 breast cancer. In August, the family learned their father, Jack Schmidt, had prostate cancer. And, going along with the saying that bad things come in threes, Dahl learned in November that she had a spreading form of pre-cancerous cells that required treatment.

Before the three were diagnosed, they hadn't dealt with cancer much in the family, aside from one uncle who battled the disease. When the family learned of Erickson's condition, the "it couldn't happen to us" mindset came to a halt.

"I was really aware," Jack said.

In that state of awareness, Jack received the news during a check-up that he, too, would have to fight against cancer. Fortunately, it was caught in its early stages - but it was still cancer. It was during a trip from Fargo for Erickson's chemotherapy when he told his daughter the news.

"It's scary," Erickson said. "You go through that, and then your dad gets it."

With Schmidt's condition on the mend and Erickson well into her chemotherapy, the family was hit again.

"I called Sandra on her way home after chemo," Dahl said.

In 20 minutes, Erickson was by her side.

While Dahl had taken her sister to and from chemo treatments in Fargo many times before, the tables now began to turn, with the two driving one another to appointments.

"We never drove ourselves to any treatments," Dahl said.

In six weeks, Erickson alone made 30 trips to Fargo for her own chemo and radiation treatments.

While Erickson acknowledges chemo isn't a walk in the park, she said it was during those trips that some of the sisters' most memorable times were shared.

Even now, the sisters laugh when reminiscing about the road trips, with cars breaking down in the frigid winter and spiders invading their seats.

"It's not all bad," Erickson said. "It's about the people that you meet, the friends and family that help."

'You just keep moving'

Erickson's attitude toward cancer was an inspiration for her family.

"I'm a fighter," she said.

When the tumor was first discovered, Erickson dealt with the emotions and nerves in a way common among those who have been in her shoes.

"I thought I had a death sentence," she said.

The list of procedures and treatments necessary to remove the cancer and ensure it wasn't going to return initially overwhelmed her. But after a partial mastectomy, the medical procedures and mental anguish that come along with the experience, she made a decision:

"I came to a point where I just said, 'cancer is not taking anything else away from me."

Two days before her chemo began, she cut her long hair and donated it to Pantene Beautiful Lengths, which uses hair to create wigs for cancer patients. When chemo began, her husband helped her shave her head entirely, before the treatment caused her hair to fall out.

"I took it, cancer didn't," she said.

Erickson described her tenacity during that time in her life as a spirit she "needed to survive."

"You push it off," she said. "You keep moving."

She passed that attitude along down to her father and sister, who both observed her inspirational approach first-hand.

Erickson never missed a day of work, even when traveling to Fargo five days a week for chemo. Her sister followed with the same determination, getting herself out of bed every morning and committing to making it through.


While Erickson was officially free of cancer after her partial mastectomy in May of 2008, which came before chemotherapy, Erickson didn't feel like a survivor until she walked out the door after her last radiation treatment.

"You came out and you were dancing," Dahl said, look at and laughing with her sister.

During the Relay for Life in 2008, while Erickson was going through chemo, she was asked to take part in the survivors' walk.

"I said, 'I didn't' feel like a survivor,'" she said.

She may not have walked, but she was there. Straight from chemo treatment, she sat in the bleachers and watched the survivors take off.

She was given a Relay for Life shirt that day, but she didn't put it on until her final day of treatment.

"On my last day of radiation, I walked out with my Relay for Life shirt," she said.

"It was purple," her sister added.

For Erickson, it was the perfect moment to truly celebrate her survival.

"I finally could put it on and feel like a survivor."

The true celebration for the entire family came when Dahl finished her treatments. To commemorate, the two sisters hopped on an Amtrak in April of 2009 and took a day and a half train journey across the country to Washington, all the while looking back over their journeys together.

"We talked a lot," Dahl said.

It was another experience the sisters look at as a blessing that came out of their fight.

Inspiring others

When Relay for Life organizer Lisa Peterson contacted Dahl to ask if her family would serve as honorary chairs for this year's event, Dahl was honored and overwhelmed. With her daughter's graduation party a few weeks away, she had a full plate. She immediately thought about her sister, and the inspiration she had been to her.

"I said I wasn't going to do it without these two," Erickson said, pointing at her father and sister.

The three agree they want to encourage others to take on a fighting attitude against cancer. They also want those battling the disease to know that, through the storms, there are blessings. In their case, many great stories of times spent with friends and families have come out of their battles.

"Sometimes I think this is why this happened," Dahl said.