‘Every day is even a gift’

MARSHALL – In 13 days, Irene Timm will be 92 years old. While incredible, the fact that she is a 50-year cancer survivor as well makes her an inspiration to everyone.

Along with Haily Peterson and Doug Swoboda, Timm is an honorary chair for this year’s Relay For Life of Lyon County, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary. The year also marks the 100th anniversary for the American Cancer Society (ACS).

“I feel privileged to be a 50-year survivor,” Timm said. “I’ve been dealing with it for a long time. It’s an emotional thing. Your life changes. Once you’ve had cancer, you’re never really rid of it that you know. But I’ve had a pretty good journey.”

The Lyon County Feat at the Fairground event begins with a survivor program and picnic at 5:30 p.m. Friday, followed by opening ceremonies at 7 p.m. and a luminaria lighting ceremony at 9 p.m. The closing ceremony is scheduled for 7 a.m. Saturday.

“Relay For Life is great,” Timm said. “It’s real. Cancer touches almost every family nowadays. The money doesn’t all stay in Lyon County, but when you think of the cost of research and the cost of the equipment they’re developing, you realize the money is going for a good cause.”

The 325 participants on 22 teams have already raised more than $24,000 in the fight against cancer this year. Like so many who have donated their time or money, Timm believes in being part of the cause. In fact, she was one of the three women who got Relay For Life started in the Marshall area.

“Aileen Rowe and I went to Red Wing 21 years ago to see how the Relay For Life was set up,” Timm said. “It was just starting in Minnesota. They had it at a park close to the river. There were all these rows of luminaries, and I couldn’t help but cry.

“Seeing all those names brought tears to my eyes. I didn’t know a soul there, but it does something to you to know how many people have been affected.”

The two women quickly decided that Lyon County needed to start its own Relay For Life the following year. Timm, who was in her 70s by then, and Rowe, who was in her 60s, recruited Betty Lockwood to be the first chairwoman for the event.

“Betty and her crew did a fantastic job with the first Relay For Life in Lyon County 20 years ago,” Timm said. “And it has continued under the leadership of dedicated, caring people ever since. The public and business response has been terrific. So much progress has been made in detection and treatment of cancer. It is money well spent.”

Timm’s cancer story began in the summer of 1963, when she was 42 years old. That’s when she found a lump in her armpit. Although a biopsy found it to be benign, a second lump found a month later turned out to be cancer.

“Four weeks to the day later, in the shower when I was all soaped up, I washed across the other breast, and it hurt,” Timm said. “It was about the size of a quarter, rather flat, but very irregular around the edge, and it hurt.”

Timm said she knew cancer wasn’t supposed to hurt, but she went back to Dr. Wayne Taintor again.

“At that time, there were no mammograms, no chemo as we know it today, no lumpectomies and no implants,” she said. “So Dr. Taintor did a very radical surgery, removing all the lymph nodes, much muscle and tissue from under the arm and chest. He gave me three days worth of nitrogen mustard, hoping it would help. But it took many months to regain full use of that arm.”

In the meantime, Timm went through the only known treatment, which was unshielded radiation.

“I made 16 trips to the Radiology Center in Sioux Falls (S.D.),” she said. “The treatments were painless, but I did notice after effects. My skin burned and blistered. I got very tired. I could drive to Sioux Falls, but was tired after the treatment and had to have someone with me to drive home.”

A day after finishing the treatments, Timm went back to teaching home economics in Cottonwood.

“I was talking with the superintendent and said I was aiming to live to 100,” she said. “I’m still aiming for 100. The odds aren’t good I’ll make it. But I’ve done pretty good to be a 50-year survivor.”

There were bumps in the road, though, Timm said, including six more biopsies in a period of a year-and-a-half.

“In January of 1964, I needed another one,” she said. “The emotional toll of so many biopsies was difficult. I talked with my doctor and my husband (Norman) and decided it would be better to have a mastectomy.”

It turned out that there were different kinds of cancer in Timm’s breast, so the mastectomy ended up being a good decision. Unfortunately, she still had to take radiation, she said. Timm taught for 15 more years, the last 10 at Marshall High School, recording a total of 25 years teaching. During that time, she had eight more surgeries, including a colon resection.

With no prosthesis available, Timm fashioned her own out of old nylon hosiery, birdseed and a couple of drapery weights.

“I tried to look as normal as possible,” she said.

Timm has also suffered from the side effects of unshielded radiation, including the thinning of her hair.

“My thyroid is damaged, and I have lung damage, heart problems and bone damage from the radiation,” she said. “But in spite of those, I feel pretty good. I’ve had good care.”

The best part is that she’s been able to watch her children grow up and have families of their own, Timm said.

“I feel grateful,” she said. “I’ve been lucky. I have five great-grandchildren, and I wasn’t even sure I’d be around to see my own grandchildren.”

Timm’s children – Linda, Holly and Marty – are planning to attend the 2013 Relay For Life event in addition to some of Timm’s nine grandchildren. She said she appreciates that the event brings awareness to cancer in addition to helping fund research for it. The mentality about cancer now is very different than back in the ’60s, when there weren’t newspaper or magazine articles about it or even talked openly about, she said.

“Back then, it was hush-hush,” Timm said. “But I think it’s so much better that people talk about it. There’s no ducking it. It’s around, so if talking about it can help people, it’s for the good.”

Timm said she doesn’t agree with articles she’s seen recently, though, which discourage women from doing breast exams.

“I found my cancer while I was in the bathtub,” she said. “I wouldn’t have been around if I hadn’t found it and did something about it. You have to pay attention to your body and notice changes.”

After retiring from teaching, Timm spent 18 years as a volunteer for the ACS in Lyon County, served six years as a chairwoman for the door-to-door cancer drive, taught countless breast self-examinations and made many Reach to Recovery visits. She also helped get Daffodil Days started in the area.

“A radiologist once told me there were over 300 different kinds of cancer,” Timm said. “It’s no wonder they can’t find a cure for every one of them. But they are making progress.”

The key is to keep trying. About 1,660,290 new cancer cases are expected to be diagnosed in 2013, according to the ACS. More than 580,300 Americans are projected to die of cancer, which equates to almost 1,600 people per day.

“It’s to the point where everyone knows someone affected with cancer,” Timm said. There were days I got discouraged. But it’s a good thing I like to sew. And I loved teaching.”

Timm noted that a positive attitude and sense of humor also helped.

“You have to look for a few perks,” she said. “With the radical surgery, I don’t perspire. Radiation took care of that. And I don’t have to shave under my arms.”

Since cancer remains the second-most common cause of death in the U.S., accounting for nearly one of every four deaths, Timm encourages people to do whatever it takes to get through the bumpy parts of their individual journeys.

“You just have to make the best of every day,” Timm said. “Consider every birthday a gift. Every day is even a gift.”