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 Circle of Hope is a member of the Minnesota Better Business Bureau Association since January 7, 2016.
Circle of Hope, Non Profit Organizations General Membership, Duluth, MN

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Breast Cancer Stories

Sandi Vabalaitis 

Sandi Vabalitis

                                                                                                 Sandi Vabalaitis of Superior, right, and her friend Barb Myhre sit in the stands at Soldier Field during the Bears-Vikings football game Sunday. The dream trip for Vabalaitis, who has stage 4 breast cancer, and her friends was made possible through the Dream Foundation. (Submitted photo) 

Superior woman’s dream comes true at Soldier Field

By Sandra Lockwood, Superior Telegram

One Superior woman’s dream came true Sunday. Swathed in layer upon layer of clothing, Sandra “Sandi” Vabalaitis watched the Chicago Bears triumph over the Minnesota Vikings live at Soldier Field.


“It was amazing,” said the die-hard Bears fan. She shared the trip with her friends Kelly Raunio and Barb Myhre. During the first half, snow swirled around them with blizzard-like ferocity and they lost seven minutes of the third quarter for a bathroom break. The Vikings notched an early lead and there were some nail-biting moments.

“It was perfect,” said Vabalaitis, 51. “This is how football should be played.”

Although Vabalaitis grew up watching the Bears and her favorite player, running back WaltePayton, on television, she never saw a live game until Sunday. The trip was made possible through the nonprofit Dream Foundation of California, which helps adults with terminal illnesses fulfill their dreams. The organization paid for airfare, tickets and a hotel room for the trio.

“It was fabulous,” said Raunio, a Vikings fan. The flight was wonderful, the game was amazing and Sandi’s team won. Raunio wore Vikings gear to the game.

“But deep down, I wanted the Bears to win for her,” she said. “It was all about her; it was her time, her trip.”

In September 2013, Vabalaitis was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. The rare form of cancer, brought on by 13 years of hormone replacement therapy, dotted her ribs, liver and skull with tumors, but not her breasts. It was a devastating diagnosis.

“There is no cure,” Vabalaitis said. “It’s going to spread.” She is currently taking chemotherapy, one pill a day, to control her symptoms. The first chemotherapy treatment left her with horrible leg pain. She’s on the second available treatment now. If it stops working or the side-effects become unbearable, Vabalaitis has one last pill she can take.

The Superior woman wants to hear the truth about her disease, but she doesn’t take doctor’s numbers to heart. Instead of giving herself 12 months to live, she focuses on small goals.

“First it was Christmas, then my grandson’s birthday, than our 30th (wedding) anniversary, now it’s Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Vabalaitis said. “I don’t like numbers unless it’s in football.”

The Superior woman has faced a difficult medical situation before. Her son, Bruno, was diagnosed with Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy. He died in 2008, one week short of his 23rd birthday.

“I believe I got a lot of strength from my son,” Vabalaitis said. “I had to fight a lot for him. I fight for me now.”

She is holding close to her faith, as well.

“You keep pushing and I talk to God; I talk to God 100 times a day,” Vabalaitis said, and she believes in the circle of life. Her grandson, Liam, was born on her son’s birthday.

“He keeps me going,” she said of the 2-year-old.

It was Vabalaitis’ sister who told her about the Dream Foundation. She’d heard of the Make-A-Wish organization for children, but never a similar dream-maker for adults. It took about two months of shuffling paperwork back and forth to make the dream a reality.

“I just love everything about football,” Vabalaitis said. Seeing a Bears game live was her top wish; being on one of Ellen DeGeneres’ 12 Days of Christmas shows came in a close second.

The Superior woman flew down to Chicago last Friday, spent Saturday at the Museum of Science and Industry, ate at Bubba Gump’s, stayed on the 32nd floor of a hotel overlooking the field, then shouted herself hoarse at the game Sunday. The dream brought a new spark to Vabalaitis’ life.

“I haven’t seen her this excited since my son was born,” said her daughter, Arlene.

She described Vabalaitis as outgoing, honest and someone who would give you the shirt off her back.

“She is a breath of fresh air and she is an inspiration to everyone,” Raunio said. “I thank God every day that I met her and she’s part of my life.”

Although her dream has come true, Vabalaitis has some new goals in sight. She had a special sweatshirt made for the game. The front has the words “Cancer sucks but being here with the Chicago Bears, priceless.” On the back it has “Secretly hoping chemo gives me super powers.” The Superior woman hoped the Bears might sign the sweatshirt, something she would still love to see happen. Her other dream is more local. It is her wish that her oncologist at Essentia Health would hold office hours in Superior. Vabalaitis missed a number of appointments last winter due to icy conditions on the bridge.

She continues to focus on each day and each small goal post without dwelling on the numbers.

“Let’s just live life the way it’s supposed to be lived,” Vabalaitis said, by helping others.

For more information on the Dream Foundation, go to

Sandi passed on January 29, 2017 to be with big and little Bruno. 

Peggy Anderson: Sandi has been a volunteer for Circle of Hope and participant in activities inspite of having Stage IV breast cancer. We love her!

Gail Hall, Superior

Godspeed my beautiful friend  Thank you for our long talks about life , love .and everything in between. Your journey was one of grace and beauty. Anikka and I have learned so much from your journey as well, life is way too short to not live every single moment to the fullest .We know you are in heaven dancing with the angels, beautiful in every way  You will forever hold a special place in our hearts, we will miss you and hold our memories close until we meet again Love you Miss Gail ... We will always celebrate your birthday for you ! (From Angela)

Kimberly Thorson, Bemidji, from Two Harbors

Kimberly Janet (Ericksen) Thorson, 57 of Bemidji passed away peacefully in her home in November of 2013 after a 6 year battle with Stage IV Breast Cancer. 
She was born in Duluth the Charles Ericksen and Nina (Lundin) Erickson. She lived in Two Harbors and then moved to the Twin Cities. Later she moved
to Austin Texas, married Jeffry Menten. She spent 7 years in Texas as an activities coordinator and began her lifelong passion singing in various musical 
groups. In 1985 she moved to Bemidji. She did foster parenting. She continued her singing career in the Bemidji are with groups including "Snowy River," 
"The Mentones' and "The Radio Flyers." She got divorced and married Eric Thorson. She has one son, Darian Menten.

In 1966 she and Erik began Music Box productions focusing on their own original songs with customized narrations. her spirit and beautiful voice will live
on through the thousands of musical family keepsakes that they produced in their home-based studio over the past 17 years. She also loved gardening, 
meditation, improving and decorating her beautiful home. She really liked the metaphysical and spiritual.

To listen to her music go to Music Box Productions in Bemidji or any of the following links:

Nora Bertognotti

"Thank you for accepting my invitation on LinkedIn. When I read about your organizations' endeavors it touched my heart deeply because you
are a helping soul exactly life me. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer (2000) I was working in a newspaper without insurance and thanks to a charitable program 
created by Kaiser I was able to combat this epidemic.

My bout with cancer thirteen years ago left my immune system somewhat weakened but not my spirit. Through artworks I was able to move forward to healing; both spiritual and physical. Perhaps this practice could be considered by many as a mere ability however: it is a deep empowering process of self knowledge.

My art has enabled me to connect with the metaphorical language of the unconscious and has allowed me to find answers about my identity, my psyche, and my self-esteem.
My artist name is Nora Bertognotti and my artwork featured is featured in posters, book markers, oil and water paintings plus a series of inspirational cards and poems.

Sometimes after I have finished a painting I start to understand my state of mind, and I am like reading a mental evaluation of myself. I did discover layers of emotions that I did not know were hidden inside my soul. I was not being aware of that particular memory that surfaced at the painting. I had no idea how happy I was until I saw the explosion of color on the canvas.

One day a friend came and observed that "you were really sad the day you painted that." I said, "No, I only wanted to use different colors."

Later, trying to remember the moment when I painted...indeed I was melancholic. It was difficult to talk about cancer, especially when my mother died of cancer.

Nevertheless, my paintings open up freely to talk without any hesitation.

I conduct and offer gratis regional and national Soul collage workshops where I explore soul awaking, healing and creativity. I provide the frame in which mind, emotions, soul and spirit become one. Through my workshops, Weaving Your Own Rainbow (c), an art/soup workshop that I created, I try to help women express their unique gifts and talents empowering them to see themselves as co-creater of their own symbolic rainbow."

A big hug, Nora B

"Arlie" Arlene McGinnis, Duluth



I went to the doctor because my right under arm “hurt”  for about 2 weeks.  After a checkup I thought I had just pulled my pectoral muscle. 

I was on Advil for weeks then one day, I felt THE LUMP on the right side of my breast!!!!  Big Too!! I panicked. I was scared to death. MY

mind just went wild and I could hardly think or breathe.  I called my Doctor’s nurse (my Doctor wasn't in) to check on it.  She sent me to the

hospital to get a mammogram.  My husband came to get me because I couldn't think straight and couldn't drive myself after the appointment.  

The result was not good. An appointment was made for me to have surgery. I was scheduled in two days from getting that mammogram.  When

I was home the night before the surgery, I got down on my knees and prayed. I said “PLEASE HELP THIS FEAR TO GO AWAY AND 


AND HE DID.  They removed the right breast and 19 lymph glands… 5 of which were cancerous. I was not afraid!! After that I had chemo 

(4 rounds-January-February-March-April) and 25 treatments of radiation. I actually went to work 8 weeks after surgery.  It was tough but like

 any cancer patient knows, I had to work to keep my insurance.

Then 2012

While working in the garden and lifting large hostas (large plants) from the ground with my daughter I felt a pain in my left groin.  The next week 

we moved a few more large plants for my new apartment.  While lifting one there was this sharp pain and something popped out and I could feel it. 

I THOUGHT IT WAS A HERNIA… when I went to the Doctor she sent me to a surgeon who after a biopsy said it was cancer in one lymph gland.

Then they tried to find out where it originated from.  The Doctor said it was a good thing it happened to me.  It could have kept on growing. I had 

many biopsies, and they said they never seen that before … Cancer in the lymph glad … it comes from somewhere… they had done three urine tests

 they came back ok… even when I complained about having to get up many, many times a night to go to the bathroom. The urgency was so great that

 I would have to get up and Run.. You would think that would have been a sign to do a bladder check…Well the result of this was a foot long incision 

through my groin and 12 inches down my left leg to remove the cancerous lymphoid. The recover was painful and to top everything off… an infection 

set in to my incision.. I went to the doctor’s office and where they made a decision to cut my incision open…. Puss… blood … clear fluids came pouring 

out…. The determined that it needed to heal from the inside out… so the incision was left open to heal for over two months… it had to be packed twice 

a day… Home health aide nurses had to come to help with that … THANK GOD FOR THAT….I was home bound for roughly 3 months then cellulitis

went into my leg; it was not a fun situation and I ended up in the hospital for 3 days… L When is enough enough???

Finally  “YAAAHHOOO” HOME!!!!


But not for long I was sent to a neurologist who did a slope bladder test and biopsy (Don’t you just hate that word)... He found a tumor connecting where

my bladder and urethra connect,so from that point I have been using a catheter.. Now let’s just say that has been an experience in itself.  Hahahahah…

It has been 4 weeks with it in…. I know that this too shall pass and what’s next??? Chemo the next time was March 20, 2013. I have had two rounds

and two more to go.  The nurses and doctors were so wonderful there. If it weren’t for getting sick, I wouldn’t mind the 4 ½ hour infusion.

I love to talk as you can see…  J

I still have hair… but it is starting to fall out slowly.  I will need a picture so I can remember how to fix my hair when it comes back.. J  I do love my cut 

and color right at this moment..

Well so far these are my cancer stories.  We all have a story to tell!!  Thanks for letting me tell mine.  We all need to write ours down.  Needless to say

I’m looking for some great times, I will never take a day for granted.  They are so priceless.

Arlie, a breast cancer survivor) was suppose to have her bladder removed for bladder cancer. She chose not to have surgery, went to Hallelujah Acres.  She is cured and has no cancer. She continues to juice, exercise on a small trampoline, etc. Arlie died on June 24, 2015 from  the cancer that moved into hr hip bone socket. It broke....It moved very quickly so her death was caused from bone cancer from metastatic breast cancer originally

She will be remembered by Circle of Hope in 2015 for getting the most clothes for our clothing sale. Arlie came to our private pink parties each year. She worked the clothing sale this year with such enthusiasm. Circle of Hope will truly miss her.

"She was a beautiful mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and fiend to all. Her talents were huge. She had the ability to love all, forgive all and to judge no one. She was a true artist of painting, writing, stepping stone and listening to music and making any gathering a party." "Arlene's greatest love was in her Lord Jesus Christ and lived everyday by his example. Her beautiful Gypsy Soul will carry on for generations. And as Mom would say, "Put some lipstick on, you'll be just fine."


Joanne Dodge

Founding Board Member of

Joanne was the host of the 2010 comedy show, "I Survived Breast Cancer and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt!"-a fundraiser in Portsmouth, NH. Joanne lost her 4th battle with breast cancer February 28, 2012. She was a very funny women, a true advocate for breast cancer support initiatives, and she touched so many people's lives. 
Check out the You Tube Video of her at:     
Also check out Breast Cancer Stories at:

Tracy Plunkett's Story:

It has been several years since Tracy died. She was from South Range. We had hoped to have her story done by a family member but the pain of a loved one dying never goes away. We are forever connected with her husband, Don and Sister, Terri. Tracy was on The Many Faces of Breast Cancer team, as a team member, a rower. (She was on our team, The Survivors and Supporters Team II for one year. She was not treated very well and wanted a separation.) She was part of our Circle of Hope Support group for many, many years.
We will never forget Tracy's infectious laughter, her tears and sense of humor. Tracy came to the Circle of Support group regularly at the Duluth Grill for many years and participated as a volunteer for the Sage Phone bank. She was a volunteer at Women Rock for several years.
Years ago, Tracy got early stage breast cancer, had surgery, changed clinics. Then years later, breast cancer came back, a differerent and more agressive type. Tracy at the time had $5,000.00 deductible health insurance, so she went on a clinicial trial. She ended up with one lump after another. She had one surgery after another. Tracy shared her lumps all over in support group, as we laughed on life's lessons, and cried in another breathe. She was full of humor in support group, on the phone, and at the dragon boat races.Tracy was on several clinical trials including Avastin that landed her in the hospital. It has since been taken off of the market.
Tracy cried over her weekly calls over her breast cancer bills. Her sister and her friends had a benefit for her. It was not enough for the amount of devastating bills that were racked up from breast cancer. Her loving husband was left to contend with these. Tammy Graves Miller, Peggy Rydberg and Peggy Anderson talked to her a lot, they felt her pain over these bills over and over as she cried and was depressed over getting the calls. The three some decided they wanted an organization (Circle of Hope) that helped patients with their breast cancer bills. They felt you may have to go through cancer, but you shouldn't have to deal with weekly calls when you are terminal. They felt it should be the patient above all else.
Tracy helped another breast cancer patient by sending her back to the doctor over a recurrence. They had the same symptoms as it was discussed in our Circle of Support group. That persons is still living today because of this, a former board member.
We use to call Tracy, "Shopper Girl." She loved to shop, laugh, and go out to eat with her friends and husband. Her sense of humor will be forever engraved in our lives. Tracy, "We are checking our lumps for you!" Tracy is loved and missed by many. She had many, many friends.

Julie Soskinski's Story: 
"I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006 at the age of 43. It was ductual carinoma in suitu or DCIS. I have a family history of breast cancer. My grandmother lost her battle at the age of 56, on the one-year anniversary of her funeral, my mother found a lump in her breast, which resulted in a mastectomy. My mother became a 40 year survivor this past March. My aunt on my father's side has battled breast cancer 3 times in over the past 15 years.
Honestly, I sort of always had this feeling of, "not if I will get it, but WHEN " On the advice of my OB/GYN, I started to have mammograms at age 26 and did self-exams montly. With all the advances that have been made in diagnosis and treatment, I was confident that this disease would NOT take my life.
Once the diagnois came, I simply wanted my life to stay as "normal" as possible. I never missed a day of work. In fact, my husband and I took a cruise that we had booked months before my diagnosis. I did have surgery, 33 radiation treatments and went on Tamoxifen.
In thinking back at the day I got the call informing me that my biopsy was maligant, I dreaded having to inform my mother. I knew she would be so upset that this disease had struck the next generation. The day I met with my surgeon and found out the details, including  the size of my tumor, THAT is when I cried, BUT, not tears of sadness, happy tears, that my cancer was caught early. All I could think of is how grateful I was to the person who read my mammogram and how staying "on top of things" really did pay off.
"Early detection was the key in my case."

What does it say on the T-shirt? 
In Memory of Peggy Rydberg, 
Who loved life and lived it to its fullest, 
Who had discovered the strengths and talents, 
That were uniquely her own, 
Who put others first, 
And left every situation better than she found it, 
Who always found what was beautiful, 
In all people and all things, 
Whose heart was full of love, 
And who found joy in living, 
and peace within herself. 

Peggy Rydberg's Story:"I was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer in November of 2004. I had ductual carcinoma, in situ, 11 positive lymph nodes out of 18 were removed."
"I had an annual mammogram every year. This year it was negative, two weeks before I felt my lump, and I waited. I thought this lump was from the mammogram. I waited until October to have a second mammogram. Then I had a biopsy, surgery and chemo at a later date. I had implants put in during my surgery, which later became infected. I was going through chemo at the time they were removed at the end of February. I finished chemo without my implants; put my radiation on hold, had reconstructive surgery. My breast had to be expanded over a period of two months at the University of Minnnesota. I had radiation which caused the skin to shrink.
"In 2008, I got my cancer back, this time it was Stage 4, and it had metastasized to my ribs and lung. I was switched from Tamixifen to Armidex."
"In December of 2009, the cancer had metasized to my brain. This happened after the cancer had been found in my ovaries, the ultrasound showed they were suscipious ovaries, which I had removed at the Mayo Clinic. They thought it was fueling my cancer. I had been on Armidex, and I was still having my periods. I had three weeks of radiation to my brain."
"In 2010 the cancer had spread to several other sites in my body. It was in my liver along with other places (lung, 3 ribs, brain, and spine). I have been going through chemo after having pelvis radiation."
"Recently I found out that I have a family history of breast cancer on my mother's side and two family members had bladder cancer."
"In January of 2011 I had two cyberknife treatments to the brain. I had more radiation to the brain, and then in 2012 had radiation to the thoracic area. In 2011 I went through weekly chemo treatments and stopped in November to pursue another source of treatment. (I didn't want to go other types of chemo that could affect my heart or shorten my life.)" 
"I went to Mexico to be seen at the Hoxey Clinic. I wanted to give this a try. I came home and followed the diet and prescriptions. My brain tumor could not be removed without more serious consequences that would affect my walking nor could I have cyberknife again. I was put on a steriod drug to reduce the swelling the brain"
(PA) About three weeks before I died, I had two major seizures which I can't even remember. My brother, Pat said he never wanted to see my like that again. It was good that I had a monitor to press. I was brought by ambulance and was in St. Lukes hospice for a couple of days. I was allowed to go home with 24/7 care and a hospice nurse checking on me a couple of times a week. My health declined, and I died on February 10, 2012 at 6:45 a.m. I leave behind two wonderful daughters (one son-in law), and one  red haired grand daughter.
"My message is do your own self exams, have a digital mammogram with dense breasts. All lumps can be cancerous."
Winnie R. (Fauvell) Nelson
Winne passed away peacefully with her family by her side on April 12, 2012 at St. Luke's Hopsital after a long and courageous battle with breast cancer through the years.
She was born July 9, 1927 to Jack & Ruth Fauvell. She lived her entire life in the Woodland and Rice Lake Township area. As a young adul she enjoyed skating at the Duluth Curling Club. She volunteered at the Crisis Shelter and House of Hope. She loved people and loved to cook and entertain at the cabin on Jacob's Lake. She volunteered many years for the Homecroft PTA. She had a wonderful sense of humor, love of reading and politics. She enjoyed her family and friends. Winnie embodied the spirit of life.
She was preceded in death by her husband Richard (Dick) Nelson; her parents Jack & Ruth Fauvell, sisters Aline Zimmerman & Jackie Arthur; in laws Paul & Carolyn Nelson.
Winnie is survived by her sister Georgia (Al Johnson) O'Brien, songs Randy J. (Jean Laine) Nelson, Ted Nelson; daughts Wendy (Walt) Anderson and Cindy (Tony Vitorio) Nelson; grandchildren Samantha (Travis) Murphy, David (Deb) Alander, Julie (Craig) Gilje, Kirsten Phol & Elizabeth Pohl; great grandchildren, Reese, Wyatt, Eliot, Bryce, River, Maxine, Molly & Jamie, also several nieces and nephews.
The family is greatful to the excellent care given to Winnie at St. Luke's 5th floor ICEu for compassionate care.
Her funeral was Friday, April 20th at 2 p.m. at the Creation Society of Minnesota, in Duluth, with visitation one hour prior.


Judith Ann Carlson

Judith Ann Carlson

April 17, 1951 - September 11, 2016


Judith Ann Carlson (Dupre) was finally able to escape her pain ridden body to walk the heavenly forests with the angels on the evening of September 11, 2016. She was in her home with family by her side.

Judi was born April 17, 1951 to Leonard and Marcella Dupre. She was raised by her parents in Forest Lake, MN. Where she attended school, graduating the class of 1969. Judi later continued her education thru Anoka Ramsey, receiving her Associates of Arts degree. She married Jerry W. on January 24, 1970. Their little family began in December of 1970, with daughter Jomanda, then along came son Jay in March of 1973. They lived in Forest Lake until 1976. They then built a home on Skogeman Lake in Cambridge, MN. Judi worked for Cambridge school district as an aide/tutor with children who needed that "little extra boost". She adored all of her students. When nearing retirement, it was decided they would build Judi's dream log home in the woods of Holyoke, MN on the land they went deer hunting together on. Judith spent many years being an advocate for children with special needs and all children in general. She was a brilliant, talented, expressive woman. She sang and played guitar with power at churches, in weddings, at funerals, for fundraisers, peace child festivals, children's birthdays, family gatherings, and even sang in a little local rock band for a short time. She was a water color painter, pencil artist, a passionate flower pounder (her retirement business), she enjoyed sewing, and quilting with friends. Her talents and abilities to create abound. She loved being in the woods, because she loved the beauty of nature. She loved animals, both domestic and wild. And of course she adored her family and loving, all accepting, friends. Judi touched many people throughout her life with her love, joy, empathy, and generosity. This powerful woman had an indescribable sense of humor, always followed by her unforgettable contagious and distinctive laugh. Gone physically from this earth, but never from our hearts or minds.

Proceeded in death by her father, Leonard E Dupre and mother Marcella A Dupre (Beaton).

Survived by husband, Jerry W. of Holyoke, MN; daughter, Jomanda of Holyoke, MN; son, Jay of Sandstone, MN; granddaughter, Madilyn Booth of Cambridge, MN; brother, Ron (Sharon) Dupre, of Rush City, MN; sister, Valerie Dupre, of Forest Lake, MN; many nieces, nephews, their families, and an enormous amount of magnificent friends.

Casual "Celebration of Life" September 24, 2016 at Methven Funeral Home, in Sandstone, MN. Service at 1:30 p.m. with "visiting hour" starting at 12:30. Please feel free to wear a shade of Judi’s favorite color green, and also feel free to bring a memory or representation of any of her many talents to share with everyone.

Arrangements by Methven Funeral Home of Sandstone, MN.