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Relay for Life draws caregivers, supporters

Farmington's annual Relay for Life will take place July 26-27. As part of the Relay, volunteers, donors, survivors and caregivers will come together with others whose lives have been touched by cancer to raise money for the American Cancer Society.

Manuela Edwards, who has been working in the Farmington school district for seven years, is a longtime caregiver for her son, who has Hodgkin's lymphoma. She is participating in Relay for Life for the first time this year.

Her son, Derek, was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma seven years ago, when he was 16 and a junior at Farmington High School.

"It started with a cough, and I took him in and they gave him a nebulizer," said Edwards. "(They said) if it doesn't quit, bring him back. I brought him back a week later, they took a chest x-ray and said he had Hodgkin's lymphoma."

Edwards went back to school and started working in the district the same year Derek was first diagnosed.

"My oldest son was going to be going off to college, and I knew how my life was going to change and I needed something to occupy my mind and time," Edwards said. "I assumed it would be getting a new job, but I never thought it would be, on top of everything else, watching my child get sick."

Derek visited Children's Hospital in Minneapolis to confirm the diagnosis, and started chemo a week later. He was to have six chemo treatments, and after the fifth they took another scan, thinking it had been cleared. He ended up having more cancer than they expected, and was then put on a 24-hour chemo drip for two weeks, followed by a month of radiation, five days a week.

It was at this point that Derek entered his senior year, having monthly checkups throughout.

"In January they thought they saw something on the PET scan, thought it had come back," Edwards said. "They couldn't find anything, there wasn't a growth they could get to, so we thought 'Great, everything's fine.'

After six months had passed, they learned that the lymphoma had come back. Three months after being treated with chemo and given his own stem cells to replenish his immune system, Derek went back for a checkup and discovered the cancer had come back once again. The next step was a bone marrow transplant, and, after his brother Kyle was tested and found not to be a match, Derek was put into the transplant network. They found a match, and he went in for transplant chemo.

"Then he got radiation again, which was pretty scary because they don't normally ever do that," Edwards said. "You're only allowed a certain amount of radiation in your lifetime, and Derek has exceeded that."

This was terrifying for Edwards, and even the oncologist was worried, she said. The oncologist said she didn't know what it would do to Derek.

After these treatments, Derek developed graft vs. host disease in which the donor bone marrow was fighting Derek's own cells.

"They kept saying this would be six months and it would burn itself out," Edwards said. "It's now been three and a half years. The cancer was one thing, but the treatment and what he's got has been horrible."

As a result of the graft vs. host disease, Derek's lungs are permanently damaged, and his skin and nails have been affected. His kidneys and liver have not yet been affected, which has surprised the doctors and Derek's family, but his immune system has been suppressed.

"That of course means he gets sick easily, but he has finally been weaned off the immunosuppressant and the graft vs. host hasn't come back, so we are very hopeful it has burnt itself out," Edwards said.

Derek will go back in September for a check up.

Throughout his struggle with cancer, Edwards has been her son's primary caregiver. While speaking about Derek's struggle and recalling the specific times and dates of everything over the last seven years, Edwards said, "you remember all."

"It's hard to remember a time that this wasn't hanging over our heads," Edwards said.

After struggling with fearful times, like when Derek was in the ICU last November, Edwards has learned to not put all of the burden on herself.

"A lot of times he's been to the hospital and its just sitting there waiting, putting a lot of trust in the doctors, believing they are doing the best they can for Derek," Edwards said. "But also Derek has a fairly unique cancer. Most people don't get Hodgkin's a third time."

When they have met with new doctors, there are also times of surprise on the medical side.

"After they flip through his enormous pile, the comments are 'he's got a very unique medical history'," Edwards said. "I like the idea of my son being unique, but I'd rather it not be in his medical history."

Edwards said that there has been immense amounts of support coming from all aspects of her and Derek's life, especially from her coworkers, who she had only been working with for about seven weeks before this all began.

"All the people that worked there were incredibly supportive," Edwards said. "I know that first year I missed about seven weeks of work and I couldn't have done it without my family, friends, coworkers and the administration. They were very, very supportive."

Over the years of Derek's treatment, the family has participated in a New Year's Eve fundraiser for the American Cancer Society, but this is the first time they will involved with Relay for Life. Edwards will walk in Relay on behalf of her son, who is unable to be there.

"I will be out and we are going to walk the first couple of laps, and I will be there through dusk when they light the luminarias," Edwards said.

Her friend who has been there for her since the beginning of Derek's struggle with cancer, encouraged her.

"I am looking forward to it," Edwards said. "I think it will be a very emotional time."

Relay for Life begins at 6 p.m. July 26 at Robert Boeckman Middle School and continues through early Saturday morning. For more information on Relay for Life, visit