Driessen’s dedication honored

by Britt Aamodt
Contributing writer

Three years after her mother died of carcinoid cancer, Michelle Sonderup put together an Elk River team for the American Cancer Society fundraiser, Relay For Life. Her team wore yellow Stomp’n For A Cure tees.

Michelle Sonderup’s Stomp’n For A Cure Team. Driessen is the lone white shirt in a sea of yellow.

When the Stomp’n team gathered for a photo, a gal in a white T-shirt wandered up. “Hey, I missed my team photo. You mind if I join yours?” the woman asked.

Sonderup still has the photo of one white T-shirt among a field of yellow ones.

That photo session was Sonderup’s first encounter with Lola Driessen.

Driessen, says Sonderup, makes an impression. Since 1996, Driessen has been a strong advocate and dedicated fundraiser for Relay For Life.

Unlike Sonderup, when Driessen started with the annual event, she had yet to experience cancer close up. No one in her immediate circle had been hit by the disease.

Lola Driessen has been with the Elk River Relay For Life since its inception in 1996.

The need for a cure and a strong desire to help are what initially drove Driessen to participate in Relay For Life. She has been her team’s top fund raiser for years. This year she has been named the Relay’s honorary chair in recognition of her dedication and service.

“If I believe in a cause, I support it,” says Driessen, who also devotes time and money to diabetes and multiple sclerosis fundraisers.

It’s been 16 years since her first Relay For Life. A lot has changed. For one, she’s dealt with skin cancer. For another, her friends and family have dealt with cancer, too.

“I met with a friend for breakfast,” she says. “We were laughing, talking, just having a good time. I remember her mentioning she was having pains.”

A week later, Driessen learned the friend not only had cancer but that it had spread.

A Minnesota Department of Health report from September 2010 revealed that, in 2006, 24,916 Minnesotans were diagnosed with cancer, and that 9,065 of them died. Though nationwide heart disease is the leading cause of death, in Minnesota it is cancer. In 2006, 20 percent more Minnesotans died of cancer than heart disease.

Relay participants walk the track throughout the night.

Statistics like these are what motivate the participants in Elk River’s Relay For Life, which this year will take place Friday, Aug. 10 at the Elk River High School track. The event begins at 6 p.m. and lasts until morning.

“The reason the Relay event takes place at night is to symbolize the journey a person goes through when they’re diagnosed with cancer,” says Sonderup. “The night is the dark valley you walk through and then morning comes and you see that there’s a light at the end.”

Sonderup’s mother fought cancer for a number of years. It was an intense period for Sonderup, who dove into research mode, trying to find out everything she could about her mother’s cancer, treatment options and medications.

Months before her mother’s death, “I’d already used up all my sick days and vacation days — and I wouldn’t change that for anything,” says Sonderup.

But her frequent trips to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester gave her an even greater appreciation for the American Cancer Society, which provides free lodging to cancer patients and families who travel long distances for care.

The Hope Lodge program is only one of the programs that benefits from Dreissen’s and Sonderup’s fundraising. The money also funds research that, even if it hasn’t cured cancer yet, has made tremendous strides.

Driessen is hopeful for a cure, partly because of the next generation’s concern for the cause.

Driessen, longtime fundraiser for Relay for Life, named honorary chairperson.

“I asked a group of kids for a donation,” she says. “You wouldn’t think they’d be interested. But they dug in their pockets and gave me whatever they had. You’d be surprised how involved even young kids can get.”

Three of her granddaughters — Kaitlin Thompson as well as Amanda and Kara Budreau — have particpated in the Elk River Relay. Thompson is now part of the organizing committee for the Little Falls Relay, and Kara is walking in the Morris Relay for Life this year.

“I’m pretty proud of that,” she said, noting it’s up to the next generation to keep up the fight.

If you go:

Relay For Life
A fundraiser for the American Cancer Society

At the Elk River High School track

Friday, Aug. 10
Ceremony begins 6 p.m. with a luminaria vigil after sunset

Everyone is welcome

For more information or to sign up a team or make a donation, visit the website www.relayforlife.org