‘She was full of life’

Barb Nelson smiles as she has her nails done at the cosmetology department at Riverland Community College — Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com.

Barb Nelson smiles as she has her nails done at the cosmetology department at Riverland Community College — Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com.

By Trey Mewes and Kevin Coss
newsroom@austindailyherald.com

Friends, family remember Paint the Town Pink promoter

Barb Nelson was more than her illness.

That’s how the 47-year-old Austin woman wished to be remembered, and that’s what drove her to share the story of her and her husband Jeff’s battles with cancer during this year’s Paint the Town Pink event to raise money for cancer research.

Barb passed away Sunday at St. Mark’s Lutheran Home, surrounded by her family.

“She was full of life,” said Barb’s sister, Becky Sheehan. “She had a great spirit.”

Many remember Barb as a spokeswoman for this year’s Paint the Town Pink, and for her powerful story: Her husband, Jeff, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2005, and after more than four years of treatment, he passed away in January 2010. Barb was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer in 2011 and underwent a double mastectomy in May 2012 to get rid of the tumors.

Despite surgery and several rounds of chemotherapy, she still had cancerous tumors on the left side of her body. She was briefly in remission, but she had the nagging feeling her cancer wasn’t finished.

She was unfortunately right: In December, doctors 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.

Barb had volunteered on the Paint the Town Pink committee last fall, when she thought she was beating her cancer.

“She came to Paint the Town Pink committee last September and said that she would really like to help us out,” said Cheryl Corey, one of the event’s organizers. “Barb really wanted to tell her story.”

Corey remembers Barb as the magnetic personality people just wanted to be around.

“She appeared reserved, but she was very outgoing and bubbly,” Corey said. “She would be the first person to ask, ‘how are you today?’”

Barb Nelson tears up as she talks about her latest battle with cancer Thursday at the Riverland Community College cosmetology department. Nelson found out just Wednesday that she had Stage 4 cancer and was at the cosmetology department supporting their Paint the Town Pink event by getting a manicure.

Barb Nelson tears up as she talks about her latest battle with cancer Thursday at the Riverland Community College cosmetology department. Nelson found out just Wednesday that she had Stage 4 cancer and was at the cosmetology department supporting their Paint the Town Pink event by getting a manicure.

After Barb visited the doctor in December, organizers asked her to stay on as a spokesperson, which she readily accepted.

“She was very positive, very focused, and she still just wanted to live life,” Becky said. “She was full of life. And the Paint the Town Pink gave her that, just that sense of purpose, sense of clarity.”

During the annual Paint the Rink Pink Bruins hockey game, Barb went out on the ice to say a few words.

“She just asked people to support the cause,” Corey said. “She could say it best because she was in the battle.”

Barb was well known for her determination and her sense of purpose, according to Becky. Born Barb Hovey on March 5, 1966, to parents George and June, she grew up in Austin, graduating from Austin High School in 1984. Soon after, she moved to the Twin Cities, where she eventually met and fell in love with Jeff Nelson, an iron worker. Barb and Jeff were married on June 4, 1989, and spent more than 21 years living in Maple Plain, Minn. A homemaker, Barb was a determined woman when it came to her three children, family events, and her passion for gardening.

“When she found something to put her mind to, she stuck with it,” Becky said.

Barb worked at a gardening center to pay bills once Jeff fell ill, and was the primary caretaker for the family during Jeff’s struggle against cancer. She moved back to Austin in 2011, getting involved in the community when she could.

Yet throughout her life, Barb handled things with a sense of grace and realism. Once she was diagnosed with cancer, she faced her situation head-on, more than once telling people she knew her struggles were part of God’s plan for her.

That’s the message she told people during this year’s Paint the Town Pink. Barb knew she didn’t have much time, but she would rather help find a cure for others than sit around.

“She always hoped for the miracle that she didn’t get, but if she couldn’t get those things, the next best was that she could get it for somebody else,” Becky said. “That gave her the hope and the drive for the future.”

Barb suffered a seizure last week, and was checked into the hospital. After a talk with her doctor on Wednesday, Barb made the decision to go into hospice care with the same sort of determination she exhibited earlier this year.

“This is God’s plan, and I’m OK with it,” Barb said of her cancer in January, during a Paint the Town Pink event at Riverland Community College. “If this is the road I need to take, then this is the road I need to take.”

On Friday, Barb’s friend Kathy Finley, Gail Dennison of The Hormel Institute and Corey all went to visit her at St. Mark’s hospice. The three had worked together with Barb during Paint the Town Pink, and wanted to pay their respects.

“I got the chance to tell her how important she had become to me as a friend,” Corey said, adding Barb’s death was a huge loss for the community because she was so supportive.

Barb’s memorial service will take place at 1 p.m. Tuesday, May 7, at Clasen-Jordan Mortuary in Austin, with visitation one hour prior. She is survived by her children, Zachary (Lindsay) Christensen, Chelsea and Ashley Nelson, and two grandchildren, Aiden and Gavin Christensen.

Though Barb is gone, her determination to beat her cancer will live on in the family and friends who knew her, and who will remember her before she fell ill.

“She wants us to remember her when she was healthy, remember the great memories,” Becky said. “She doesn’t want to be defined by her illness, but how she dealt with her illness and adversity.”

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