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"It's a tough journey" — Perham resident shares her story, 13 years cancer-free

As the Relay for Life approaches this July, community members and cancer survivors like Josie Winkels are remembering their own stories and the stories of those lost.

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Josie Winkels stands with her husband Roger and their daughters, Amanda and Brittany Winkels, at her second Relay For Life.
Contributed / Josie Winkels
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PERHAM — Cancer affects the lives of many Otter Tail County residents, and, with the local Relay for Life approaching, the stories of survivors and those lost are at the forefront of community members' minds.

Josie Winkels, an executive administrative assistant at Arvig and a cancer survivor herself, took some time to share her cancer journey and express what the Relay for Life — an event to raise money for the American Cancer Society — means to her.

As a Perham resident, Winkels had always been aware of the American Cancer Society, since Arvig was one of the original teams at the East Otter Tail relay event. However, she didn't know much about it.

"Never did I think I'd have to use (the American Cancer Society)," she said.

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Josie Winkels and her late mother-in-law, Margaret Winkels, walk the survivor lap at Relay For Life together.
Contributed / Josie Winkels

Over 13 years ago, Winkels was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Her situation was a little unique, because it also affected her lymph nodes. She got all her treatments done at Minneapolis, which is around a three-hour drive away from Perham.

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"I had to be there six weeks plus, and I thought, 'I can't spend six weeks with my sister and mother,'" Winkels recalled. Something called the Hope Lodge, however, was recently opened by the American Cancer Society.

Winkels explained, "If you were diagnosed with cancer and lived more than 40 miles away, you can stay at Hope Lodge with no charge." Each Hope Lodge is described to have a "home-like" environment, with private rooms and resources for those battling cancer.

With her husband at her side, Winkels stayed in the brand new Hope Lodge all throughout her treatments, which successfully got rid of her cancer. In fact, as of 2022, she's now 13 years cancer free.

"When I got back from my treatments and got back to work, I thought, 'How in the world could I ever pay back American Cancer Society?'" Winkels asked. "My husband and family — we just hopped on the Arvig (Relay for Life) team and took off from there. It's been 13 years later, and I'm still involved and moving forward."

For Winkels, the relay is a way to honor her friends who lost their battles to cancer along the way. Cancer isn't going away, she said, and it doesn't discriminate. For her and many others, living through cancer is a scary and humbling experience.

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Team Arvig stands together at the Relay for Life.
Contributed / Josie Winkels

"When you have cancer, it's not always a death sentence," Winkels shared. "It's just a tough journey."

While her cancer was being treated, she also learned that many of these treatments are available because the American Cancer Society funds both that and the research. In a way, participating in the relay is a way for her to give back for all the help she received.

As it grows dark at the Relay for Life, luminarias with the names of family members and friends who have fought cancer are lit up. For Winkels, this can be an overwhelming moment.

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"When you see the luminarias under people's names — it is just amazing," she said. "Some have lost their lives, some are doing well and back into the world. It's a powerful event. You just have to take it all in and be thankful that you are there and that you lived through cancer. And there's people trying to help raise funds, so your loved one can survive."

If you want to learn more about the American Cancer Society and how they use donations, visit cancer.org . For more information about the Otter Tail County Relay for Life in Perham on July 8, visit relayforlife.org/ottertailmn .

Elizabeth (she/her), 23, graduated with a degree in Journalism and Communications from the University of Wisconsin–Stout in 2020. Elizabeth has always had a passion for telling stories about people and specializes in community features, which she uses for her Perham-centered content.
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