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Community, co-workers team up for cancer benefit

Kristi Lee misses the everyday things — exercising with her daughter, driving to the store, running her fingers through her hair to relax, working as a radiologic technologist at Essentia Health.

"You kind of take it for granted, those little things," said Lee, who lives in the town of Parkland.

Lee, who is battling stage four cancer, has been unable to work since Thanksgiving. She spends most of her time in a recliner or in bed. She can use a walker sparingly, but shouldn't put much weight on her pelvic area, where the cancer has taken root.

"I've lost my independence, that's the hard thing," Lee said. "Every day that passes, I just hope I get a little better."

On the phone Friday, she laughed and cried as she spoke about her life, her work and her fight.

"She's just a phenomenal person," said Lee's mother, Carol Larson of Parkland. "Not just because she's my daughter. If she was a drip, I would say it."

At 15, Lee began working as a dishwasher at Dreamland Supper Club. She moved up to waitressing and stayed there for 12 years, working her way through college at the University of Wisconsin-Superior for her art education degree.

"I did the nine-year plan," Lee said, and later went to Lake Superior College for her radiologic technologist degree. She's spent the last 12 years working at Essentia.

"I love my job," Lee said.

The work is interesting and her fellow workers have become like a family. They've been donating vacation time to Lee since Thanksgiving to bolster her paycheck, but that ran out this month.

Community members and coworkers are teaming up to host a Cancer Crusade benefit for Lee 3-7 p.m. Saturday in the Parkland Town Hall. Cost for the spaghetti dinner is $10. Children age 5 and younger eat for free.

Money raised from the dinner, raffles and silent auction will help with medical bills and remodeling needed to help Lee maneuver herself, and her wheelchair, around the house — from a ramp and a level floor to a walk-in shower.

"Oh, my gosh, the support is unbelievable," Lee said. "It's so humbling."

She plans to be there in her recliner, with a ready supply of masks and hand sanitizer for anyone who wants to stop by and visit.

This is Lee's second bout with cancer. She was diagnosed with stage one uterine cancer in 2013. After a hysterectomy and removal of all affected lymph nodes, no follow-up was required except for check-ups every three to six months.

A year after the surgery, Lee began experiencing pain in her groin area. She started to exercise and diet to lose weight.

"I would walk like a maniac," Lee said, often with her daughter Macy at her side, and lost 72 pounds. But the pain persisted. Ibuprofen didn't help; pain injections didn't help.

The day before Thanksgiving, Lee left work early and did some Christmas shopping. She got home and put a load of laundry in the wash. An hour later, Lee couldn't put any weight on her left leg.

"The next day we took her to the emergency room,' Larson said. "She couldn't walk."

Tests revealed cancer in her pelvis near her hip joint, although the odds that her cancer would come back were less than 2 percent.

"My brother-in-law googled it and said, 'I hope you bought a lottery ticket,'" Lee said.

She'll finish up her third round of chemotherapy this week, a treatment which made her hair fall out. If test results look good, she'll continue with three more.

"I still have hope," Lee said. "Be positive about it all because you just never know."

She's not the only one who's positive.

"I still have my job, my boss said," Lee said. "I don't know how I'll come back and do it. We'll think of something."

She encouraged everyone to be an advocate for their own health, to push for answers when they're in pain.

The Parkland woman relishes the good days and the time spent with her family — husband Dat, daughter and parents, who are also her next-door neighbors.

Lee and her husband went shopping for a shower curtain together recently. Macy, 17, makes time to lie down next to Lee so she has hair to run her fingers through. And her parents bring the Parkland woman to appointments.

"We've had a lot of fun," Lee said. "It's just been nice to have this time with them too. You get to know them again."

Lee got a laugh the other day when her mother asked if she had a hair pick in her purse.

"I'm lucky to have a lot of positive energy around me," she said.