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Calendar gives cancer survivors hope

CAVALIER -- Robert Vivatson never dreamed he'd be modeling for a calendar.

Then again, the Cavalier-area farmer couldn't quite believe, back in 1987, that he'd be diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

So, he didn't hesitate when he was asked this fall to be photographed for a 2011 calendar featuring cancer survivors from northeastern North Dakota.

"I got a phone call," he said. "How do you say no?"

The American Cancer Society Relay for Life Survivor Calendar is a fundraising project of the Pembina County Relay for Life team. The goal is to raise $100,000. The calendars cost $20 each, so the group must sell at least 5,000.

All cancer survivors -- including men, women and youths -- featured in the calendar live in Pembina, Cavalier, Grand Forks or Walsh counties.

The calendar idea was conceived by Dr. K.S. Sumra, a Cavalier physician, and his wife, Inna, a Russian immigrant and owner of Inna Photo, a studio in Cavalier.

Inna first experienced a Relay for Life event in Cavalier last year.

"It impressed me so much," she said. "So, I said, 'what can I do to help?'"

Inna's father died of brain cancer at 42. She was 14 at the time, growing up in Kazan, a city of more than 1 million in central Russia.

Dr. Sumra met Inna while on a trip to Russia in the late 1990s. Although Inna had a passion for photography, it was not her profession. She holds a master's degree in aircraft engineering.

After she moved to Cavalier and got married 10 years ago, she started shooting portraits of people out of a studio in their home. That worked until their daughter, Maya, was old enough to start school.

In 2006, the Sumras bought some property on Cavalier's main business street and built a large, state-of-the-art studio, where Inna specializes in portraits of high school seniors and of families.

Quick turn-around

The Sumras approached the local Relay for Life team in October.

"We didn't have a lot of time," said Brenda Anderson, Pembina County's Relay for Life team development chairwoman.

So, they expanded their horizons, calling on people they knew through Relay for Life in other counties and Altru Health System. Two of the Pembina County relay co-chairs work at Altru Cancer Center in Grand Forks.

That helped organizers find cancer survivors who would be willing to be photographed for the calendar. Vivatson is Mr. September.

They also looked for sponsors. They found 12 -- 13, really, because one month features a husband and wife -- to contribute either $600 or $750 each to cover costs.

Vivatson Family Farms is the sponsor of February.

"It's kind of our way of giving back, too," said Vivatson, who is known locally as Kayo.

While the calendar features photographs of the survivors, it does not include their names or their stories.

"The survivors were doing a lot for us already," Anderson said. "We were concerned for their anonymity, because cancer is such a private issue."

Vivatson underwent cancer treatment twice before being declared cancer-free after five years, in the early 1990s.

"I don't think about it much," he said. "But when you get an ache or a pain, you wonder."

They started selling the 2011 calendar before Christmas by caroling through Cavalier neighborhoods. When people opened their doors to hear the singing, they also opened their wallets.

They already have a waiting list of cancer survivors who want to take part in the next calendar.

"One of the things Inna did was not only show them in their everyday lives," Anderson said, "but it shows that there's hope. These are survivors. It shows that there's hope for others out there who are dealing with cancer."

Inna Sumra said photographing the cancer survivors was a life-defining experience.

"I love it here and I love giving back to my community," she said. "When photographing these people, you can just feel there something strong in them, a strength, in the adults and even in the little children. It really does give you hope."

Bonham is a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.