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Bethany Wesley, Published October 19 2013

Pastor's wife battles rare form of small cell lung cancer

BEMIDJI, Minn. – Cancer never dealt with Kelly.

The words, initially offered as encouragement and now printed on a bracelet around her wrist, have become Kelly Fuhrman’s motto as she battles a rare form of small cell lung cancer.

“That’s kind of my philosophy,” Kelly said last week, sitting beside her husband in their home north of Bemidji. “I’m going to beat this, I am.”

The Fuhrmans – Kelly; her husband, the Rev. Corey Fuhrman; and their children, 14-year-old Carly, 11-year-old Jonah and 8-year-old Jacob – are relatively new to the area, having moved here in August 2012 when Corey answered the call to serve as senior pastor at First Lutheran Church of Bemidji.

“I remember apologizing along the way, saying, ‘This is nothing you signed up, to get a pastor with a sick family,’ and they said to me, ‘This is nothing you signed up for either,’ “ Corey said, reflecting on how the church responded to Kelly’s diagnosis. “They’ve been nothing but supportive the entire time.”

In fact, it was his church that planned a local benefit to support the Fuhrmans.

Coming to Bemidji

The Fuhrmans weren’t looking to leave North Dakota, where Corey served two Fargo congregations over the previous 12 years.

But as his current congregation flourished, his and Kelly’s schedules just became busier.

“We had just had a conversation about just how crazy our life had gotten,” Corey said. “The letter (from First Lutheran) came out of the blue and we set it aside, on the bed stand. We didn’t even open it the first night.”

They did, eventually, and, intrigued, they called around seeking input on why they shouldn’t consider moving to Bemidji.

But no one had anything negative to say, praising the church and the community, so the Fuhrmans took a leap of faith.

From leg pain to lung cancer

In November, Kelly began experiencing leg pain. There would be excruciating pain one day, then it would subside. But it would come back, and go away again.

By March, it had gotten so bad she could barely walk. When she started having back spasms, a doctor ordered an MRI, thinking it was a pinched nerve or herniated disk.

“They called me at home that night and said I had abnormal bone marrow numbers,” Kelly said. “It wasn’t a pinched nerve.”

The day she returned for additional MRIs, the radiologist took her history and immediately ordered a CAT scan.

“He came in, closed the door and said, ‘We found spots,’ ” she said. They were in the liver, her pelvic area, lower back and lungs.

He recommended a liver biopsy and said she could either come back or, with a full staff on hand, he offered to do it right then. Kelly opted to do it immediately.

Several days later, she got a probable diagnosis: a neuroendocrine tumor.

Kelly asked to be referred to the Mayo Clinic. On April 22, she went down to Rochester for a full day of testing, and on April 23, she was diagnosed with cancer and started chemotherapy 45 minutes later.

“It’s small cell lung cancer, but she never had any lung difficulties,” Corey said.

“Nothing at all,” Kelly agreed. “It all started with leg pain. The reason it was leg pain was because it was already in the bones, it had already spread.”

‘Our goal is to beat it’

Until recently, Kelly and Corey had been traveling to Rochester for three days every three weeks as she underwent chemotherapy.

But in August, her chemo treatments were paused after she developed blood clots in her left leg and lungs and spent two days in the hospital. She now gets injections twice a day to combat the clots.

Meanwhile, her doctor ordered a chemo break until December after new scans revealed the cancer wasn’t growing.

“Since it seems that the cancer is lying dormant, we’re just going to let it sleep and we’ll look again in December,” Corey said, noting that the break will give Kelly’s body time to recover and strengthen.

In the meantime, Kelly must pay attention to her body and report any new pain, particularly in her legs.

“That would mean that it’s probably time to get down (to Rochester) again,” she said.

It’s an emotional time, she admitted, wondering at every twinge, every pain, “Is it back? Is it growing?”

“To know that you’re allowing something to grow inside you and not know it, I can only imagine,” Corey said.

Kelly’s cancer is a type usually found in 50- or 60-year-old lifelong smokers. Kelly herself has never smoked or been around secondhand smoke.

“The doctor basically said there’s no reason wasting your energy trying to figure that out (why she got it),” Corey said.

Her cancer is not likely curable or operable. Corey said the doctor would not offer a prognosis because unlike most of her peers, Kelly is young and healthy.

Still, the Fuhrmans acknowledge the odds are not in their favor. Six percent of those diagnosed live five years after their diagnosis.

“Our goal is to beat it,” Kelly said emphatically.

“Because there are 6 percent who do,” Corey added.