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Relay torchbearer's story 'a miracle of modern medicine, and the grace of god'

Childhood cancer survivor Marti Wermager of Detroit Lakes will be the torchbearer for the annual Becker County Relay for Life, benefiting the American Cancer Society, on June 18-19 at Detroit Lakes High School.

At the time that Marti Wermager was first diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (known as ALL), she was just 5 years old.

She was also given a mere 1 percent chance of survival. Almost four decades later, Marti has not only survived, she has thrived.

"I'm considered a long-term survivor of the disease," she said.

As such, Marti was considered to be a fitting torchbearer for the Becker County Relay for Life, which takes place Friday, June 18, at Detroit Lakes High School.

Marti will participate in the 7 p.m. opening ceremonies, which will take place in the multipurpose room at DLHS. She will also lead off the survivors' lap in the DLHS parking lot, which will be lined with luminaries decorated in memory of loved ones who have either survived the dreaded "C" word -- or not.

In previous years, the event has been held at the DLHS track, but since it is being resurfaced this summer, an alternative location had to be found.

New this year will be a dove release, taking place during the survivors' lap in the parking lot.

The traditional silent auction and survivors' reception will be held in the high school commons, with the auction getting underway at 5 p.m., and the reception at 5:30 p.m. Concessions will also be available inside the high school throughout the Relay, which starts at 7 p.m. and continues through 6 a.m. Saturday, June 19 -- rain or shine.

"We have 23 teams signed up so far," said Michelle Bjorgan, co-chair of the annual Relay event, which benefits the American Cancer Society.

Marti feels very fortunate to be among the participants; when she was undergoing cancer treatment as a child, at St. Luke's Hospital (now MeritCare) in Fargo, she was the only one of her group to survive the treatment.

"There were about five of us (in the group)," Marti said. "All the drugs that were being used on me were experimental."

Marti was also fortunate in that the chemotherapy treatment itself didn't leave her with too many lasting effects.

"I walked out of it basically unscathed," she said. "Some of the kids weren't able to walk as a result of the chemo."

She also never had to undergo radiation therapy, which decreased her chances of getting cancer again, Marti added.

"The only thing I really have (as a long-term effect of the treatment) is that I'm extremely double-jointed," she said. "And I have a fear of needles now -- they bring back some traumatic memories."

Remission from her form of leukemia was virtually unknown at that time -- in fact, Marti said, she needed to get a second opinion on the remission diagnosis, from the University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic.

"They hadn't really seen kids in remission before," she said, adding that her doctor didn't want to make the call to stop treatment on his own, which was why the second opinion was sought.

Fortunately, the diagnosis was confirmed -- and remained unchanged through subsequent follow-up visits with her doctor.

"They followed my case for many, many years -- but I was released from long-term follow-up care in my early 30s," Marti said. "Once I went in remission, I stayed in remission."

Now her odds of getting cancer again are no better or worse than an average woman of her age, she added -- which is also at least partially due to the fact that she never needed radiation therapy.

A native of Halstad, Minn., Marti and her husband, Warren, now make their home in Detroit Lakes with her 15-year-old son, Riley Soberg (born of a previous marriage).

"It's been almost 40 years since I was diagnosed," Marti said. "I'm one of the oldest living survivors of this type of cancer.

"One of my doctors said he attributed it (her survival) to a miracle of modern medicine -- and the grace of God. I like that," she added.

"Treatment has come a long way... the kids who came behind me (in treatment) have benefited from what I went through, as I did from the kids before me," Marti concluded.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454