Highland News Leader

Cancer survivor Luitjohan to share her inspiring story at Highland Relay for Life

Bids fly for homemade pie at charity auction in Highland

Virgil Straeter sings The Auctioneer by Leroy Van Dyke. Straeter is accompanied by Kevin Heim, who provided music during the "Paint the Town Purple" at the Peanut Butter & Jam Festival on Friday, June 16. Straeter was the auctioneer during the ann
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Virgil Straeter sings The Auctioneer by Leroy Van Dyke. Straeter is accompanied by Kevin Heim, who provided music during the "Paint the Town Purple" at the Peanut Butter & Jam Festival on Friday, June 16. Straeter was the auctioneer during the ann

Traci Luitjohan was diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma in 2016. She was told she had 30-34 months to live.

She wasn’t having it.

In fact, in response, Luitjohan told the cancer to get lost — which it did. She’ll share her story of perseverance as the guest speaker at Highland’s Relay for Life Celebration Night on Saturday at Hope United Methodist Church, 12846 Daiber Road, Highland.

“Right now, I can’t say I have no cancer, because melanoma will always be in your body … however, I have no active cancer spots,” Luitjohan, 58, said. “I’ve been free of that for more than a year now. I used to get scans and labs every three months. Now, my doctor says I only have to get them every six months.”

Luitjohan, a Highland native/resident, was first diagnosed with spindle cell melanoma in April 2013. It was on her temple, but the cancer had not spread to her lymph nodes, so doctors could remove it surgically, including a 3-inch spot on her temple. In turn, she avoided treatment.

However, her fight was far from over. Noting her type of cancer returns 50-80 percent of the time, Luitjohan’s indeed resurfaced. While playing softball for the Senior Olympics in 2016, Luitjohan was knocked down and fractured her sacral bone.

“The cancer poisons your body and goes after what’s weak and with the fracture it went right at that,” said Luitjohan, whose father passed away from pancreatic cancer 12 years ago.

On March 1, 2016, the mass in her liver was 4 centimeters. After a year of treatment on immunotherapy, the mass had shrunk to less than a centimeter, and then Luitjohan, who went to Siteman Cancer Center for treatment, had surgery in 2017 to remove it.

Unfortunately, Luitjohan’s health issues persisted into 2018. She was in the hospital six times over 31 days — twice in intensive care —due to colitis, passing blood and low blood pressure. Her legs were so swollen she couldn’t walk. Luitjohan was diagnosed with neuropathy in her legs and it took approximately three months for her to walk without a walker.

“It even hurt to put my feet on the floor in the very beginning,” she said.

Ironically, it was the neuropathy — not the cancer — that caused her physical pain.

“Otherwise, from Day 1 when I had my cancer even while I was in the hospital, I did not have one bit of pain. The only pain I had was out of the hospital with the neuropathy in my legs,” said Luitjohan, who also has had her gall bladder removed.

Now out of the hospital and feeling good, Luitjohan is excited to serve as guest speaker for Saturday’s event.

Kathy Walker, one of the Relay’s organizers, contacted Luitjohan a couple months ago about guest speaking, and she was happy to oblige. She hopes attendees heed her message.

“I really want people to know how serious your health is. … Go to a doctor and have your body checked for suspicious looking spots,” she said, also stressing not to wait until something is wrong to see a doctor. “Everyone thought it was a cyst … that’s how mine started. Had I never gone to a doctor I wouldn’t be here right now.

“Even if you get treated once a year, everyone should be getting checked out.”

Paula Redman, a member of the Relay for Life event committee who works with sponsorships and publicity, thinks Luitjohan is the ideal guest speaker.

“She is a strong, brave young woman and has an amazing story,” said Redman, also team leader for the “Oldies but Goodies” Relay for Life squad.

Beyond speaking, Luitjohan looks forward to interacting with community members Saturday. She will attend with her mother, Joan Sackett, who is 88, and husband, Bob.

“I look forward to just seeing everybody and letting them know how much I appreciate their support,” Luitjohan said. “I’ve been in Highland my whole life. We know a lot of people. The farmers and the people who come in (to their family business) … I’ve really had a lot of support from all them too.”

Luitjohan has faced many challenges since her diagnosis, including depression. Moreover, Luitjohan said, she simply wanted to get back to a “normal life,” and said it took until the end of 2018 to achieve this.

Her dog, Beckett, has helped. The Luitjohans drove to Nashville, Tennessee, to purchase Beckett — “well worth the trip,” she noted.

“He’s been my therapy dog,” Luitjohan said. “He’s laying right here by me on my lap. He’s really helped me. He’s been my buddy.”

Additionally, Luitjohan appreciates all the support she’s received from her mom; her husband and his side of the family to include four sister-in-laws and a brother-in-law; and her best friend, Debbie Frey; along with the entire community.

“Everyone has been completely supportive,” she said. “When I got out of the hospital I got so much food. I got so many prayers. Everybody was sending me cards. I still kept my cards. I have over 100.”

Luitjohan’s condition still prevents her from certain activities she previously enjoyed, including sports such as softball. However, she still golfs and played tennis last year.

About Traci Luitjohan

Luitjohan and her husband, Bob, live in Highland. They have two adult children — a daughter, Angela Fears, and a son, Todd Luitjohan.

The Luitjohan’s own Oberbeck Grain Co. — a grain elevator — in Highland and New Douglas. Traci, a Highland High School graduate, said she is “semi-retired,” and that both children work there. She mostly goes in when her daughter is on vacation.

Previously, Traci handled all the payroll work, grain tickets, etc.

“The business started with my great-grandpa and then he passed it down to his two sons (one of them was my grandpa) then to my dad. And then when he passed away Bob and I took over and now we’ve brought the kids into the business,” Traci said.

Parting words

Luitjohan had some simple, yet poignant advice for anyone dealing with cancer.

“If you don’t trust your doctor, if something is wrong or you don’t trust them, find another one. You have to have 100 percent trust in them. You have to have a doctor you trust. Once they do something bad, you won’t have the trust in them again,” she said.

Luitjohan has complete trust in her oncologist.

“My doctor even calls me at home. We’re friends on Facebook. When I was sick, he’d call me and see if I was okay. He’s a very caring doctor,” she said.

She also offered high praise for her gastroenterologist, dietitian, and rheumatologist.