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Relay for Life: Dickinson resident overcame skin cancer; 2-year-old fights brain-eye tumor

Cancer survivors take the first lap, also known as the survivors lap, at the kickoff of Friday's Relay for Life event at the Dickinson State University track, which was bordered with luminaries in honor of those who have lost their battle with cancer.

Like most people, Dickinson resident Peggy Stieg thought cancer was something that happened to someone else, not me.

That was true until she sat in her dermatologist's office 10 years ago for what she thought would be a simple check of an irregular spot on her shoulder. Her doctor advised visit led to the discovery of a cancer tumor.

"Skin cancer," Stieg said, as she stood by the "Survivor" tent on Dickinson State University's campus during Friday's Relay for Life. "I was in denial even after I heard the words and saw the proof. Luckily for me, I never needed to have any chemotherapy or radiation. I was very blessed in that way, and most people didn't even know that I had been diagnosed with cancer, but that did not make it any less emotional for me. I just couldn't believe it happened to me, and I cried a lot at first."

But Stieg, who took the first lap at Relay with the other survivors, has come out of her struggle with cancer a wiser person.

"I watch for unusual spots more closely," she said. "If something changes color or shape, I will go to the doctor and not ignore it because you just never know what it could be."

Taking care of oneself is one of four ways, along with fighting back and getting well, that Tom Burns, the American Cancer Society's district executive director for District E, which covers North Dakota, said the ACS is defeating the disease.

"We are enabling people every day to be able to live," he said at the kickoff for Relay for Life. "Tonight, we celebrate the survivors, those who have lost their lives to cancer, and we fight for the future generations so they never have to worry that they will get cancer."

For a relative few children, cancer is a reality, including 2-year-old Grace Bittner of Dickinson, who sat perched in the grass in the center of the track during Relay for Life. She enjoyed cheesing it up for the camera before testing out how crawl-friendly the grass at the center of DSU's track was. Meanwhile her family, including father Cory, mother Andrea and brothers Grant, 9, and Owen, 6, visited with friends and family closeby.

"Twenty-one months ago, our family's day-to-day normal changed," Cory said. "On Oct. 20, 2010, at a hospital in Minnesota, Grace was diagnosed with optic pathway glioma and we spent two weeks trying to find out what to do and how we were supposed to cope."

According to the National Institutes of Health, optic pathway glioma is a brain tumor arising in or around the nerve that connects the eye to the brain. It is serious, but has an extremely high survival rate.

"We all had a lot to learn after we found out," Cory said. "We've read a lot of articles on the disease and asked the doctor a lot of questions. This is an unpredictable tumor that cannot be surgically removed."

That makes the disease unpredictable, he said.

"It will be a long process, as the tumor shrinks and grows," Cory said. "This disease is a marathon that we don't know when it will end. That's the prognosis for us, but our family is hopeful. We're optimistic that there will be a cure someday for pediatric brain cancers."