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Cancer survivor Toll remembers the kindness -- big and small

Nancy Toll, photographed outside her Hudson School District office last week, will speak during the Luminaria Ceremony at this year’s Relay For Life. (Hudson Star-Observer photo by Chuck Nowlen)

Even the smallest kindness makes a difference when you’re fighting for your life, says Nancy Toll, who admits that she didn’t fully appreciate the people around her until she was diagnosed with cancer.

“Work has always been very important to me, and I didn’t let a lot of people in before,” explains Toll, the Hudson School District’s technology coordinator for the last 15 years.

“By having cancer, I realized that I have to start letting people in. And what an amazing difference it’s made.”

One early gesture from a stranger still stays with Toll, a co-chair who will be a featured speaker at this year’s Relay For Life cancer fundraiser June 20 at Hudson Middle School. She had lost her hair during chemotherapy and was self-conscious when she walked into a local restaurant one day.

“This woman came toward me and said, ‘You have the prettiest legs,’” Toll remembers, still savoring the relief. “It was such a nice thing to do.”

If there is a silver lining to Toll’s breast-cancer ordeal, it’s all the kindnesses -- big and small -- that came her way, and how she’s made human connections a priority in her life ever since.

Relay For Life has been a big part of that, she says.

“Everybody makes a difference. Whether you think so or not, you do,” Toll notes, now two years cancer-free.

“My father died of lung cancer 20 years ago, and at that time, I was there helping. But I don’t think I was old enough to really know how to help him as much as I could. That’s what my speech is about.”

The ‘family’ grows

The list of deep human connections that followed Toll’s own diagnosis is long and wide indeed.

General practitioner Stephen Schmitz, for example, who hugged her and said, “We’re going to get through this” in a clinic lobby right after her diagnosis.

Her son-in-law Jesse Fladmark too, who worked at Regions Hospital at the time and helped Toll find the right oncologist, Balkrishna Jahagirdar. Another was her surgeon, Todd Tuttle, at the University of Minnesota’s Fairview Medical Center.

Toll’s family was also there. Her older sister Susan, to whom Toll will dedicate her Relay For Life speech, traveled to Hudson from Iowa early on to cook, clean house and support Toll in any way she could.

“When you go through cancer, everybody wants to help out, but sometimes you need someone around who’s really strong,” Toll says. “I knew Susan could be that rock for me. She came up from Iowa every time I had chemo. I didn’t want it to be too emotional, as I knew it would be with my immediate family.”

Other family mainstays who went the extra mile: Toll’s husband Dennis, a retired Hudson teacher and former high-school associate principal, who has since been diagnosed with prostate cancer; as well their daughter Chris, son Brian and his wife Jenny.

The American Cancer Society was there for her as well. Toll will share some of those stories in her Relay speech.

“By the way,” she laughs, acknowledging a common misconception about the event, “there is no running required.”

The memories go on and on.

Shared support

Toll remembers her first Relay For Life well. Then she was a cancer victim. Now she’s a cancer survivor.

Being surrounded by both at Relay For Life means the world to anyone touched by the disease, she says -- from offering a hug to explaining the medical processes that new patients have to navigate.

This year’s Relay For Life will include a survivor’s lap around the middle school track, followed by a caregivers lap and an event-capping luminaria ceremony. There, friends and family who lost their cancer fight will be remembered with personalized, candlelit paper bags.

Hudson’s Relay For Life is a year-round activity. Churches, community groups, healthcare organizations and local businesses sponsor a variety of fundraisers in advance.

According to Hudson’s portal on the American Cancer Association’s Relay For Life website -- – about $11,670 in donations had been raised as of May 30. Twenty-two teams and 113 participants had signed up.

Donations can be made through the Relay For Life website. More information is available by calling Midwest American Cancer Society community relations specialist Kellie Burrows at (715) 426-5448.

Chuck Nowlen

Chuck Nowlen joined the Star-Observer team as a business, township and general-assignment reporter in April, 2014 after a three-decade career in newspapers and magazines, and as a newsroom-management/business-planning consultant.

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