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Caleb Peterson stands with his parents Gary and Julie at their home in Roberts on Dec. 16. Peterson was diagnosed with cancer for the second time in November.

SCC grad fights continuing cancer battle

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Although Caleb Peterson, 21, is still a sophomore working to earn a teaching degree at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, he is already teaching everyone lessons on living life to the fullest.

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Peterson, a Roberts resident and 2008 St. Croix Central graduate, is currently battling brain cancer for the second time in two years.

While on a family vacation in 2008, Peterson said he began experiencing symptoms of dehydration like nausea and "migraine-like headaches."

After returning home, an MRI showed that Peterson had a tumor in his brain. He had surgery on Aug. 20, 2008 and was diagnosed with "small cell sarcoma," a type of cancer that little is known about.

After the tumor was removed, Peterson had radiation treatments at the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minn., from Sept. 15, 2008 to Oct. 24, 2008. After Thanksgiving that year, Peterson started chemotherapy treatment, which ended on June 25, 2009.

Peterson said after his first chemotherapy treatment there was no trace of cancer on any scans and the doctors said he was "unofficially" cancer-free.

After completing chemo, Peterson had three- and six-month MRI's in Eau Claire to make sure he was still cancer-free.

"It was all clear until about November of this semester, and I was just having some headaches and balance stuff," Peterson said.

Peterson's mom, Julie, noticed the changes too and they decided he should get a scan done, since it was close to his six-month checkup.

"The tumor was on the scan ... so it was back," Peterson said.

Another scan confirmed the return of the cancer.

The doctors presented Peterson with the option of surgery or chemotherapy.

"With surgery being so risky, chemo was the best option, since I handled it so well the first time," Peterson said. "So I started chemotherapy treatment again on Nov. 29."

"I'm optimistic. I'm confident in (the doctor's) medical knowledge that (the chemo) will be successful, but it's a wait and see kind of thing," he said.

Appreciative

Peterson said his battle with cancer has made him really appreciate what he has in terms of family, friends and people to support him and his family.

"I've come to appreciate my family more, and life, I guess. As an 18-year-old, I guess I kind of thought 'I'm invincible, nothing can touch me.' I've kind of got a different perspective on life," he said.

Peterson said the cancer has been an "interruption" on his life as a college student, as treatments have affected his school schedule and taken away his freedom to drive himself around.

Support

Peterson said he's been surprised by the "overflow of support" from such small communities.

Peterson's dad, Gary, said there have been some "real heroes" in the community who have stepped up to lend their support.

Students at the schools have been raising "Coins for Caleb" and Peterson has spoken to seventh-graders at the middle school, holding their attention for an hour and a half.

Peterson said he was not expecting such a positive response from the students.

"You don't realize how inspiring you can be," he said.

Peterson said the community has been an inspiration to him as well.

"It's been amazing to just see the community that backs you up when your family is going through a tough time and to realize you don't have to be a big community to support each other," he said.

When talking to students, Peterson says he emphasizes, "To really live every day like it could be your last, cause you don't know what tomorrow is going to bring, or if tomorrow's going to come. I'm going to live today, because I'm not guaranteed tomorrow. Appreciate every day that you do get."

Create awareness

Peterson said he wants to bring awareness to an age group of cancer patients that little is known about. He said the college-aged group is the most ignored.

"The last statistic I read said the age group I'm in, for cancer in general, the 18-25 year old range, has the least amount of information available on cancer," Peterson said.

Peterson isn't aiming to start a national campaign. "If I can just bring a few people's awareness to the age group, I'll consider it a success," he explained.

Peterson is involved in the "Mary Virnig Conquer Cancer Club" at UW-River Falls, made up of college students who have either had cancer, have cancer or know someone who has gone through cancer.

Peterson said Mary's goal was to bring awareness to the college-age group of cancer patients. He is participating in the Relay for Life in River Falls in March and invites anyone to join the club's relay team this year.

While people on the team can fundraise if they want, Peterson said awareness is what is most important.

Individuals interested in donating to the Mary Virnig Conquer Cancer Club's Relay for Life team can enter the team's name on the Relay for Life website. Peterson is also accepting cash and check donations for the American Cancer Society. Donations can be mailed to Peterson at 659 140th Street, Roberts, WI, 54023. Peterson is also selling awareness bracelets to raise money for the cause.

In 2011, Peterson said he hopes, "To get cancer-free again. To get back to what people would call a normal life."

Peterson said he is thankful for what his parents have done to support him throughout his life, and especially the last two years as he's battled cancer.

"If I wouldn't have had the parents that I do have, the journey would be completely different," he said.

Peterson's parents

Julie has had a number of loved ones battle cancer, but having her son diagnosed with cancer was especially hard.

"I think because it's such not the natural order of things. I don't think we were designed to watch our children die or be sick," she said.

Julie said she struggles because Caleb is "part of her," and when he hurts she hurts as well.

"I've done this. I've done treatment, I've done radiation, I've watched people go through it, I've watched people suffer, some of them I've watched die. I'm not doing it again," Julie said.

Julie said the second diagnosis on Nov. 18 was especially hard.

"I have never had the experience that when a physician comes to talk to you that the physician cries. The physician cried when he came into the room. No one should have to do this more than once. Most people shouldn't have to do this ever," Julie said.

Julie and Gary are still trying to understand why Caleb has had to go through such a rough two years.

"I've asked that question hundreds of times. Why me? Why us? Why him?" Julie said.

The Petersons have turned to God to help them cope with Caleb's battles with cancer. Gary recalled a quote he read awhile back, "Faith is not knowing where you're being led, but putting your trust in the One who's leading."

Julie said the last two years have really "put things into perspective that we need to be thankful for every day we have because we don't know how many days we'll get."

Gary said that Caleb is the "strongest person" he's ever met.

"No matter how bad you think it is, it ain't that bad. You can always find something to be thankful for," Gary said.

Gary has learned from Caleb's appreciation for every day he has.

"I think we hear those things over and over and over again. And say 'yep that's true.' But it's unfortunate that sometimes it seems that you have to see someone you know or love struggle to understand how real that is.

But if you get that message to one person a day it is worth it," Gary said.

Julie said although everyone has "rough days" the Peterson family tries to stay optimistic.

"One thing we've learned, and hopefully taught other people, is that attitude has a lot to do with the outcome," she said.

January 22 benefit

The Petersons are incredibly grateful for their supportive community.

"We can't say thank you enough," Julie said.

There is a benefit planned on Jan. 22 at the Badlands Golf Course. The planning is still in the works. For updates on the time of the event and other information, go to Caleb's Caringbridge page by typing in CalebPeterson (without a space).

A benefit account is set up for Caleb at the WESTconsin Credit Union. Making a donation is tax deductible and will help Caleb as he goes through chemotherapy.

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Gretta Stark
Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.
(715) 426-1048
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