From cancer, a new mission

Barb Nelson tears up as she talks about her latest battle with cancer Thursday at the Riverland Community College cosmetology department. Nelson found out last week she had Stage 4 cancer and was at the cosmetology department supporting a Paint the Town Pink event by getting a manicure. — Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Barb Nelson got up at 5:30 a.m. Thursday, put on sweatpants, and made the drive from her home in Austin to Rochester for yet another round of radiation therapy.

It helps to manage her pain, because she has multiple cancerous tumors throughout her body. Nelson was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer last week, and the doctors have told her it’s terminal. With the time she has left, Nelson is pouring her efforts into Paint the Town Pink.

“This is God’s plan,” she said Thursday afternoon at Riverland Community College. Nelson, along with the rest of the Paint the Town Pink committee members, were getting manicures, pedicures and pink tab hair extensions at Riverland’s Cosmetology Department to promote the department offering those services at a discount next week.

Riverland cosmetology student Emily Madson puts pink hair extensions in Gail Dennison's hair Thursday as part of the department's fundraiser for Paint the Town Pink.

This isn’t the first time 46-year-old Nelson dealt with cancer, however. Her husband died in January of 2010 from pancreatic cancer after fighting the disease for four years. A year later, she moved to Austin to start over.

Yet it wasn’t long before she, too, felt ill. After two months of trying to get into the doctor’s office, Nelson was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer.

After a few rounds of chemotherapy, Nelson had a double mastectomy to get rid of the tumors last May. She went through radiation once again, but unfortunately, she still had cancerous tumors on the left side of her body. Throughout her treatment, Nelson realized the cancer had spread.

“It told them I knew it’s in my brain,” she said. “I know it’s in my brain, my hip and stomach.”

She was right. Doctors eventually found more than 20 tumors in her brain, and multiple tumors throughout her lower back, hip, shoulders, and lungs. In other words, too many cancerous tumors to heal through treatment.

Women get manicures at the Riverland cosmetology department where money was being donated to the Paint the Town Pink.

“They finally got a specialist down here, and he could see the tumors through my eyes,” Nelson said.

That makes Nelson’s work with Paint the Town Pink all the more important, according to her. She had volunteered this year to speak about her husband’s battle with cancer, but now she hopes to encourage others to donate to cancer research.

“She wants to be a messenger,” said Kathy Finley, Nelson’s friend. “She wants people to know that cancer is real, and it hits home. She’s trying to put a face on it.”

Though Finley hasn’t known Nelson long — the two met in a waiting room at Mayo Clinic in Rochester last September — Finley said the two have practically become sisters. Finley checks on Nelson often, as Nelson can’t be by herself for long periods of time in case she suffers a seizure. Yet Finley wholeheartedly supports Nelson’s mission: to do enough to help one person become cured from cancer.

“If she can get the word out far enough and loud enough, maybe it’ll help somebody,” Finley said.

Nelson plans to spend as much time as possible getting things ready, and comforting her family. She has three children and several grandchildren, and she’s concerned about how they’ll feel once she dies. Yet Nelson’s staying positive, and she hopes Paint the Town Pink organizers double, even triple, what they raised last year for The Hormel Institute.

“This is God’s plan, and I’m OK with it,” she said. “If this is the road I need to take, then this is the road I need to take.”

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