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Survivor to take victory lap Friday at Park Rapids Relay for Life

Photos of family and friends adorn Relay for Life torchbearer Kristi Goochey's office wall. Her ordeal would bring the realization, "Family, friends and love are the only things that really matter." (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)

A year ago, Kristi Goochey bid farewell to the Mayo Clinic and arrived home in Park Rapids to take a lap around the track in the Relay for Life's Survivor Victory Walk.

She spotted her name on a luminary bag, a poignant reminder. "It makes it more real than you think it is," she said.

This year, the member of Team Goochey will be carrying the survivor's torch with John Schumacher. "I'll blubber like an idiot," she predicts. "I'll cry the whole time."

With good reason.

A year ago in March, a week before her 38th birthday, Kristi headed to the clinic after two months of abdominal cramping. A colonoscopy was ordered "to rule things out."

But the news was dire. "It doesn't look good," Kristi remembers Dr. Brian Brattlof cautioning. "I think it's cancer."

The wife and mother of Emmy, 3, and Macy, 5 at the time, was diagnosed with colon cancer, further tests revealing a tumor on her liver and in the abdominal area.

"I was devastated. Scared to death. My kids aren't going to remember me," she said of her initial reaction. "Cancer equals death."

She recalls walking into the grocery store, watching people pick up a gallon of milk and feeling overwhelming jealousy, her future perilous, theirs mundane. "I wish I was here to just get a gallon of milk. And not worry."

People asked about the stage of her cancer.

"Doctors never told me, but I knew when it metastasizes it's generally Stage 4," she said.

"I don't know but I'll beat it," she replied.

"We spent a lot of time crying," she said of conversations with husband Aaron.

She shared the information with her family, parents Chuck and Coral Schmitz, her sister and friends.

"I don't want to die," she told them.

"My whole life, everything had been pulled out from underneath me," she remembers thinking. "And there is so much about cancer we don't know.

"Why me? What did I do to deserve this?" she recalls, overcome with self-pity and anger. Someone complaining of a headache triggered ire. "I wish I only had a headache to complain about," she grumbled silently.

Her anger would be neutralized by a someone suggesting, "Don't ask, 'why me?' Ask 'why not me?"

"It dawned on me. That's right. It's not my children," she said. "My attitude changed. And I was positive I was going to beat this."

'Bring it on'

Kristi headed down to Mayo five days after receiving news of the cancer, March 29, on her 38th birthday.

She was greeted by a "fantastic team" of surgeons and specialists - a gastro surgeon, liver surgeon, vascular surgeon, radiologist and an oncologist among them.

"On a scale of one to 10, how aggressive are we going to treat this?" she asked the oncologist.

"Eleven," he replied.

"Bring it on," she told him.

Kristi would undergo four rounds of chemotherapy before her June 18 surgery, a relatively new procedure. Doctors reported her tumors shrunk from the treatments, her condition "better than anticipated."

"People may complain about small towns," Kristi said "But people were coming out of the woodwork" to offer assistance," she said of her return home.

"I felt like I'd won the lottery," she said of meals, benefits, transportation to chemo and subsequent radiation treatments, which ended April 19.

"Ironically, my first day of chemo a year ago."

New relationships formed. Her aunt, a 13-year breast cancer survivor became her confidante and advisor. "I'd tell her what I was feeling," her aunt assuring her she was "not crazy."

A sense of humor buoyed her spirit, she said. "Positive energy is huge."

Kristi cut her hair, fearing the fall out associated with chemotherapy. But her hair, for the most part, remained stable. "It didn't grow," but she wasn't bald. Her aunt's caps went unused.

Anxiety over cancer-related issues sent her to counseling. With just one chemo treatment remaining, "I was scared to stop," fearing the cancer would rebound. Through therapy, she overcame the fear.

"Once done, I shouted 'hurray!'"

She admits to a bit of hypochondria, "every little ache" causing her to question, "what's that!?"

"With good reason," doctors assured her.

"You hit a home run," a Mayo physician told her. "You're a walking miracle."

Footprints in the sand

Kristi has resumed her role as a fitness director at the Developmental Achievement Center as well as an exercise routine, with energy remaining at day's end.

She sees an oncologist quarterly. "They are keeping an eye on me."

"Over the last year, I haven't had the chance to thank people," she said. "I want the people who cooked a meal, prayed for me, drove me to the doctor, hosted a benefit dinner to know how appreciative I am.

"I hold them in my heart," she said.

Kristi admits to being embarrassed, initially, by the assistance. But she now counsels those in similar situations: "People will want to help; you're going to have to let them.

"Through all this I've met many of God's angels, who don't realize they are," she said.

A woman who'd shared a similar situation revealed scars, the survivor's zeal giving Kristi comfort and a sense of camaraderie.

"I grew up going to church. The spiritual side of me has grown in the last year. I've done a lot of leaning on God. I give credit to Him, for keeping me sane and positive.

"I know there were times when He carried me..."