Courtney Frohling is a senior at Perham High School. She loves running cross country and hurdles in track–her favorite sports.
She's currently in an AP calculus class and is planning trips to the colleges she wants to tour, all while helping the Yellowjackets prepare for section and state meets in cross country. She cherishes spending time with friends and family while appreciating the little things life gives. These are the things she chooses to focus on in her battle with stage four, Metastatic Melanoma.
In the summer of 2018, Frohling was diagnosed with stage two skin cancer. She got the mole removed, and everything looked clear until February of last year.
"That's when I had the seizure," Frohling said. "I was actually in school when it happened. It never came back on my skin. It only came back internally."
"It didn't really feel real," Frohling said on initially finding out she had cancer. "I guess because my family has never had a history of cancer or anything, it was really surprising. You never think it's going to happen to you. I always heard of other people, but nobody ever super close to me. At 15-years-old how do you process that?"
Frohling learned the cancer reached her brain, spleen, vertebrae, one of her lungs and other places around the body. It was then where she knew her life was going to be a lot different moving forward.
"I had brain surgery to remove a tumor that caused the seizure," Frohling said. "They did radiation on the other 10 tumors in my brain. It was definitely a lot. I slept for like two weeks after that because it makes you really tired. We also did immunotherapy, but that didn't quite work as we needed it to. We switched to oral chemotherapy that I take twice a day."
"We had a conversation with the doctors," Frohling said. "I run hurdles in track. They were like, 'You just had a brain surgery, so maybe no hurdles. Actually, maybe no track.' That was a huge bummer."
Frohling is surrounded by a great medical team that's helped her over the last three years. Not only is she taken care of physically, but she also has the help she needs mentally and emotionally.
"I have a really good team of doctors that explain everything to me," Frohling said. "They don't just say things to me in a medical way of speaking. They take the time to make sure I understand what's going on and make sure I'm comfortable. For what I've had to deal with, I've definitely had the best experience I could've had. A nurse works with my doctor to make sure that I'm fine other than medically. That's really nice to have. She tracks all of my stuff, which is really awesome."
Frohling was focused on reassuring the ones around her. She didn’t want to dwell on her diagnoses, but instead to get to work on moving past it.
"It was definitely harder on my parents than it was on me," Frohling said. "They were scared. Everybody was scared, honestly. I think everybody just wanted to do what was best for me. When I think of the moment when I found out, I remember thinking to myself, 'What do I have to do next with this.'"
Staying mentally strong
Melanoma is one of the deadliest forms of skin cancer, according to cancercenter.com. It's cancer that infects pigmented cells found in skin, mucous membranes and the eye. When a tumor forms, it's called Melanoma. It becomes Metastatic Melanoma when the cells from the original tumor spread to the lymph or blood circulation, starting new tumors elsewhere.
At 15, Frohling was challenged in a way that most teenagers will never experience.
"The first time I got it checked out, it didn't look like anything," Frohling said. "I kind of always knew that it wasn't normal, though. I got it checked out, and they said it was nothing. Two years later, I went back in and said, 'Seriously, can we get this removed.' They said they would remove it, but they didn't think it was anything. Then it ended up being cancer."
Jeff Morris, the head cross country coach and Frohling’s calculus teacher, has been a bystander throughout every stage in her treatment.
"I would definitely call her resilient," Morris said. "It's so hard for anybody to put themselves in her shoes and imagine what she's actually going through. To remember and be reminded every day that she's truly facing life or death is hard to explain. Are these her last moments? Is she going to get better and live a long life? Those are just things that you're always questioning. The strength in fighting cancer is getting up every day and having the mental ability and emotional capacity to live life."
Frohling was determined to have as normal of a senior year as possible, which includes doing her best to compete in high school sports.
"With something as random as this, if you can compartmentalize it, you're just going to be consumed by it," Frohling said. "Yeah, I have to deal with it. But I also have everything else that also comes with being 17-years-old right now. I just want to be a senior in high school. This is just something else that I have to deal with. That's how I look at it."
"I obviously have some days that are better than others," Frohling said. "I try not to let it affect me too much. There are a lot of medicines that you can take to manage everything that comes with it. If there's something I can do, then I'm going to do it. That's how I looked at cross country. I put nine years into this, so why stop now?"
Running a senior season
Frohling's junior track season wasn't in the cards, but she was hopeful that she could have one last go at cross country. This fall, she returned to the team in a limited capacity.
"I definitely wasn't competing at the same level I was before all of this," Frohling said. "Even the meets that I missed I still got to go with. I was basically a manager for the team. I think that might be glorifying what I was doing. It was still nice to be able to play a part. We obviously have an amazing program. The coaches worked with me and gave me some strength stuff to do when I couldn't run."
Due to her condition, Frohling couldn't compete in half of the meets this season. In the meets she did run in, she couldn't make it the entire five kilometers. That was until the Heart of Lakes Conference Championships. After pulling out early in every race she attempted so far, Frohling crossed the finish line in the second to last meet of the regular season.
"It was kind of a relief, honestly," Frohling said of finishing her first race this season. "I was so dead tired that I just kind of wanted to go to bed. The day after, I thought to myself, 'Hey, I actually did that.'"
"It would've been one thing for her to be in cross country and be able to compete normally. But, right now, it can't be normal," Morris said. "She wanted to feel as normal as possible, so for her to be able to finish a race was really important."
This fall season taught Frohling how to admire herself for doing things she once thought were easy. It's been part of her growth emotionally in her unfortunate situation.
"At the beginning of the season, I wasn't allowing myself to be proud of how far I've come," Frohling said. "I was so frustrated that I wasn't competing at the level I knew I could compete at. Now that it's done, I've been able to take a step back and realize that it is pretty impressive that I could do this. It's okay to be proud of yourself for making it through hard days."
Seven as one in Bemidji
With one more race left in the regular season, Frohling was determined to end her cross country career on a high note. When the spectators saw her running down the home stretch at the Bemidji invite, they saw Frohling joined by six other seniors in their final high school races.
Anya Roe, Madilyn Johnson, Mattea Steeke, Kordia Rindahl, Nevaeh Rethemeier and Lizzie Dale and Frohling all finished with a time of 38:11. The six seniors crossed the finish line with Frohling at the same time in a moment that none of them will forget in their last time running cross country together.
"We've all been working together at this for nine years," Frohling said. "We've pulled each other out of our darkest times. I think that moment goes beyond running. I've known these girls since I was in first grade. I'm glad I got to do that with them."
It was a moment that made Morris take a step back to put things in perspective. He's had the chance to coach some of the best runners in the state for over two decades, yet he still finds inspiration in the unlikeliest of situations.
"She reminds us to enjoy these moments we have," Morris said of Frohling. "Enjoy the relationships you get to build with your teammates and the fun that you get to have because those are the things that Courtney is going to cherish from cross country. She's been with this team for the last six years. Three months after the state meet, most people wouldn't be able to tell you where the trophies are at. But they can definitely tell you about the memories. I think that's what our team is reminded of being with Courtney."
"She gives a lot of perspective," Morris said. "In sports, it's so easy for parents, kids and coaches to get caught up in success. We've obviously had a lot of success in our program. It's easy for me even to get caught up in the accolades and the accomplishments. But to be reminded of what it means to be able to compete and to be part of a team is important."
What meant the most to Froling was getting a boost from her team when things weren't going well. It reminded her to keep pushing through the adversity to accomplish the goals she set out for herself.
"I definitely had a lot of support from them," Frohling said of her teammates and coaches. "Even if I was having a bad day, they are always so positive. To be able to watch them run even when I couldn't was amazing. They work so hard, and to be able to see that pay off for them is great. We're going into sections, and we hope to do well there."
Brave Like Gabe
Unfortunately, Frohling isn't the first Perham cross country runner to be diagnosed with cancer.
Gabriele Grunewald passed away in 2019 after a long battle with Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma. She graduated from Perham High School and the University of Minnesota before turning pro in 2010, one year after she was diagnosed.
"I actually talked to Justin, her husband," Frohling said. "It was definitely really nice to know what I'm doing is possible. I'm not sure if I would've ended up running cross country if I didn't know that somebody else has, and it was possible. She went to compete at some really insane levels."
On Oct. 7, Perham hosted its home invite at Arvig Park, where the team sold shirts to fundraise for the 'Brave Like Gabe" foundation.
Frohling ran in the meet but wasn't able to finish. During the awards ceremony, Morris called her on stage in front of the 24 teams and their spectators to recognize the fight she's going through.
"Here's a girl that was running towards the back of the pack, and everybody was cheering her on at that moment," Morris said. "She got out there and did the best that she could. She didn't even finish that day. But people were cheering her on, wanting her to be successful. It doesn't matter what level you're at. People can be successful just by doing their very best. I think that was the message she sent to a lot of people that day."
There might not be anything in life more unfair than cancer, yet it presents us with some of the greatest heroes. Frohling is a kid that proves that people are bigger than their problems, even in the most dire circumstances.
"To not worry about what's going on tomorrow and focus on what you have today takes incredible strength," Morris said. "It would be so easy to crawl in a hole and say, 'This sucks.' (Courtney) is so focused on living her life, and it's so admirable."
Sadly, Frohling likely isn't the last person that will receive a horrifying diagnosis, but she's not going to let her condition be what defines her.
"I would tell people to try not to focus on it," Frohling said of what she would tell other people going through medical struggles. "I focus more on school and my running now, probably more than ever. If I don't, then what am I left with? Cancer is part of my life, and I have to think about it, but I'm not going to let it be my life."