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Free of cancer, he helps sooth new patients

Brian Nelson survived an aggressive form of cancer and medical issues associated with it. He now volunteers at St.Mary's. Photo by - Brian Basham1 / 2
Laughter and a good attitude are what Nelson (right) believes is some of the best medicine while battling illnesses like cancer. Oncology RN Alison Schumacher (left) says she thinks Nelson helps their cancer patients because he's been through it. Photo by - Brian Basham2 / 2

26-year-old Brian Nelson remembers the summers he spent at his father's lake cabin on Lake Melissa ... some of them admittedly partying.

"Yeah, our neighbors didn't appreciate that very much," the California native smiled, talking fondly of his time in Detroit Lakes.

Nelson is back living in that lake home for a while, but these days, his extracurricular has a much softer, stronger purpose. He's here to coach.

"I like to call myself a cancer coach," said Nelson, sitting in one of the infusion chairs in the oncology department of Essentia Health in Detroit Lakes.

It's a place many would fear -- or at the very least, not choose to be, but right now, it's exactly where Nelson believes he belongs.

"I come in here and I just talk to patients that are dealing with chemo, infusions or anything cancer-related," he said, "I come in and see how they're doing, check on their attitudes and see if they need anybody to talk to."

And Nelson, who began volunteering at the clinic two weeks ago, knows what he's talking about.

Four and a half years ago when he was going to college at UND, he began feeling sick with flu-like symptoms.

He went in to the hospital, but says he was misdiagnosed twice ... once with the flu, once with mono. But then, after a couple of months of feeling "cruddy," Nelson passed out while in a HAZMAT suit, testing to be a firefighter.

He was brought in and told he had pneumonia.

But on his way home from that third diagnoses, he got a call back from the hospital.

"They said I needed to get back there right away and to meet them at this door," said Nelson, "but when I got to that door, it was the cancer center."

The then-22-year-old with no family history of cancer was shocked to find out he had adult leukemia.

"I thought this had to be a joke," he said.

Nelson flew back out to California the next day and was admitted into Stanford Hospital where he was instantly given some grim news. "I was about 90 percent cancer cells when they found out ... and each day was getting worse," said Nelson.

The first round of chemo didn't even scratch the surface, and neither did the second. The doctors told the young man they couldn't legally do anymore because he had already maxed out on chemo, and so they'd just wait and see and hope something changed.

"My dad was like, 'well, if you're not going to do anything for him, I want to take him home so that he can enjoy the rest of his life,'" said Nelson.

It seemed everybody feared the worst for Nelson, including himself. But a checkup two weeks later would drop jaws.

"I went in and miraculously, the cancer was gone. Everybody was shocked," said Nelson, who was quickly brought back down to reality.

"They told me because of the type of cancer, I had about a 70 percent chance of it coming back, and next time I probably couldn't do chemo because of how much they had already put in me," said Nelson, whose strongest hope was a bone marrow transplant with stem cells.

However, nobody in his family was a match and they couldn't find one in the bone marrow donor registry.

He was once again forced to sit, wait and hope his aggressive cancer didn't return.

"But then right at my last round of chemo, some guy, unrelated donor, decided to join the donor registry and they called me up and said 'we've got a guy who is a 10 out of 10 match, who is the same blood type and is willing to do the transplant right now," said Nelson.

He was told he had about a 40 percent chance of dying from the procedure if his body rejected the new cells. But he trudged on and was given the life-saving procedure.

It seemed if there could ever be complications, Nelson would get them. He developed graft-versus-host disease, which gave him a heart attack, glaucoma, avascular necrosis that weakened and crumbled the bones in his joints, and a whole host of other complications.

But he fought through it all, and won. He moved back to Grand Forks where he went back to work, but physical labor proved too much for the recovering Nelson, whose shoulders and hips crumbled under physical strain at work, leading him to get metal replacements.

Now recovering from that in Detroit Lakes, Nelson has a whole new perspective on life as he celebrates his fourth "birthday" of being cancer-free.

Part of that perspective includes a very strong urge to pay it forward.

"There's no way I can sit back, knowing what these people are going through ... knowing how hard it is and how much it takes out of you, without doing something," said Nelson, who is called in whenever there is a patient receiving treatment.

"Sometimes I see them sitting there by themselves, and I remember that ... I remember sitting there with my own thoughts, and that's when they would get bad," said Nelson, who also remembers the strength he would get from just knowing his parents and other family members were there for him.

"With this sort of thing, attitude is everything," said Nelson, "and I just want to let these people know that they're not alone ... they're not the only ones that've gone through this and they can come out the other side of it with a good attitude."

The nurses in the oncology department say having Nelson around is "so good" for their patients, who are probably going through one of the scariest times of their lives.

"They see him and they see that it can be OK, and their hair will grow back," said Oncology RN Joan Villnow, adding that while most have a good support system around them, some are single or widowed and just don't.

"And I think it also helps them to know that he knows what they're going through, too," added fellow nurse, Alison Schumacher.

Because Nelson is strictly a volunteer, he doesn't get paid for his time, but he says that matters nothing to him.

"I love hearing their stories, and it's the best feeling to see the smiles on their faces when I come around to talk to them ... that's all the payment I need," said Nelson, who plans on sticking around the area at least through next summer.

He's not too worried about making certain plans now though, because his new perspective gives him the assurance that as long as he's out there doing something good, good things will find him, too.

"I'm not going to say cancer was a blessing because it's not -- it rips families apart -- but you can come out of this with some truths," said Nelson. "Through this, I've realized that I'm the happiest broke person I know, and you have to live with what you've got because it could be taken away from you at any moment."