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Bike, monkey bars top cancer survivor’s list

Desera Grymala, 7, rides her bike in Superior on Monday. Desera was selected as the honorary cancer survivor for the 2014 Relay for Life of Douglas County, which begins at 6 p.m. Friday. (Maria Lockwood)

Douglas County Relay for Life’s honorary survivor for 2014 lists biking and climbing monkey bars among her favorite activities. She’s into fashion, art and writing. According to her mother, she is eyeing a future career as a princess.

Meet 7-year-old Desera Grymala. The Superior girl’s story will be told at the Relay for Life, which kicks off at 6 p.m. Friday.

“Nothing holds her back,” said her mother, Hally LaFlamme. “She’s overcome everything I thought would be an obstacle for her.”

At 11 months, Desera was diagnosed with bilateral retinoblastoma, a rare eye cancer that affects young children. Although the disease is genetic, there was no trace of it in the rest of the family. Desera had tumors in both eyes, which only happens in 20 percent of the cases. In fact, doctors at the Mayo Clinic had never seen her gene before.

“We call her our one-in-one-billion baby because everything about it is so rare,” LaFlamme said.

The doctors removed her left eye and the tumors in her right eye were blasted out with a laser treatment. She weathered four rounds of chemo and numerous transfusions with spunk.

“She was amazing through it all,” LaFlamme said. Desera has been cancer-free for six years, but she continues to get annual MRIs and tests to make sure new tumors haven’t emerged. Some of the side effects of the chemotherapy could affect her into her 30s.

Monday she exhibited her biking and climbing prowess and confided that while her mother is a whiz at brushing her hair, her 12-year-old sister Ariel does it too hard.

“Way harder than my mom,” Desera said. She ended the interview with a hug.

LaFlamme’s message to those struggling with cancer is to stay strong. A prosthetic eye hasn’t slowed Desera down. She does well in school and doesn’t hesitate to learn new things, like riding a bike.

The Douglas County Relay for Life raises about $90,000 annually, a large chunk of which goes to local support programs like “Look Good, Feel Better” which provides wigs and self-care support for women with breast cancer.

“It ranges from those beginning their cancer journey to the end, and afterwards,” said Relay for Life specialist Sara Mowchan with the American Cancer Society. “There’s a program for everybody.”

Last year, Douglas County residents accessed 724 of these programs.

The relay focuses on honoring cancer survivors and remembering those who have lost their fight with the disease. The honorary survivor is the “most motivating factor — the life force behind the relay”, Mowchan said. He or she provides a name, a hand to shake, a story that reminds people why they hold Relay for Life.

“It means a lot,” LaFlamme said. “It’s an honor.”

This will be the second time Desera has been chosen. Her story was told the summer after her surgery.

“It meant a lot for them to ask her back,” LaFlamme said. She plans to talk about the amazing transformations that have happened since then, how strong Desera has been through it all.

Everyone is encouraged to attend, whether they’re on a team or not.

“It’s an event for everybody,” Mowchan said. “We would like to see the community come out to celebrate survivors and remember those who have lost their lives.”

The relay begins at 6 p.m. Friday night at Wessman Arena on the University of Wisconsin-Superior with the survivor’s lap at 6:30 p.m. Only about $19,000 has been raised so far this year, but a silent auction and other team fundraisers the night of the event should draw more dollars for the cause.

There is still time to donate, Mowchan said. People can contact the member of one of the 22 Relay for Life teams, donate to a team online through or stop by the event Friday.