By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
Liz Vetsch, of rural Browerville, was 13 when her father, James Yorek, was diagnosed with esophageal cancer.
“He had acid reflux and chewed tobacco,” Liz said. “Doctors have said it’s a very hard cancer to come back from, but we didn’t know that then.”
Vetsch was an eighth grade student at Little Falls Community Middle School in September 2001. Her father had surgery right after 9/11. A rib was removed along with part of his esophagus and part of his stomach.
“The surgery took 13 hours. I remember sitting in the waiting room,” she said.
Her father had chemotherapy treatments which put him in remission, but the cancer returned in summer 2002. Within two weeks, the Yoreks found out that the cancer had spread to the brain, and very quickly it was throughout his body.
“We found out in maybe August that it was terminal,” said Vetsch. “That was the first and only time I saw my dad cry, when he and mom sat us down and told us.”
The five Yorek siblings include Michelle and Jason, who are older than Liz, and Josh and Joel, who are younger.
“He had radiation treatment for the brain cancer, and wore a pack strapped around his body for 24-hour chemo treatment,” she said. “He told us he was going to do everything he could to make it as long as he could.”
During one of the boys’ baseball games, Jim’s peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC) line for chemo fell out, necessitating a fast trip to the emergency room. It was then that Vetsch realized that her father couldn’t go on forever.
Michelle got married that September and her father was able to be there.
“He was tired, but it was like he was holding out for that,” Vetsch said. “He was still doing chores up until a few weeks before he passed. That’s just the way he was.”
Jim’s body gave out Nov. 14, 2002.
Vetsch recalls that it never went through her mind that he would even get cancer until the day of the diagnosis. But after that, she worried about what the family would do without him.
“I was worrying that he wouldn’t be there for us,” she said. “And we had a farm.”
As she got older, she would wonder who was going to walk her down the aisle when she got married. When the time came, it was her uncle who had the honor.
“My uncle got married after my grandpa died, so it was my grandma and my dad who escorted him down the aisle,” Vetsch said. “So it came full circle when my uncle (who is my godfather) walked me down the aisle.”
Her special memories of her father include making a two-seat bench together.
“He liked working with wood, especially making clocks,” she said. “I think the hardest thing for him was to have to give that up.”
Many items that her father made have been given to Vetsch since his death. She has a small clock on the mantel and a coffee table.
“It’s kind of like he’s still here,” she said. “It’s like he’s here playing with my children, even though he never got to meet them.”
Vetsch and her husband, Loren, have two children. Mackenzie is 2 1/2 and Izaak is nine months old.
Although she couldn’t see any purpose to her dad’s cancer at the time, Vetsch looks back with older eyes.
“I can’t imagine not helping people who have struggled with cancer, or kids whose parents have been diagnosed,” she said. “I tell them that it does get better. I can give advice since I’ve had that experience. Now I know there was a reason for it.”
Vetsch became involved with Relay for Life nine years ago, when she and her sister Michelle Maslowski started a team. Family members made up the team at first, but over the years many friends and cancer survivors have joined.
“One of our members, Mary Ellen Barnes, is celebrating her 10th year as a survivor this year,” Vetsch said.
Vetsch has been on the Morrison County Relay for Life committee for three of the past four years. When speakers were needed this year, she told her story to others on the committee and she was asked to be a speaker.
“Relay for Life is that huge hope that someday a cure will be found, and we won’t have to have fundraisers,” she said.