LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) - The village of Chaseburg in Vernon County is small, with a population of about 300 people -- but that isn't stopping its residents from making a big difference in the fight against cancer.
The Chaseburg Sole Burner committee, which includes the greater Chaseburg area, raises money for the American Cancer Society to put toward cancer research. The group is $4,500 shy of its goal this year to bring its fundraising total over 12 years to $1 million.
When people donate to a cause such as the American Cancer Society, they often don't get to see their money's direct benefit. But after decades of personal struggle and raising money for cancer research, Chaseburg resident Linda DeGarmo came face to face with one of the products of her hard work helped to bring about.
"Ninety people in Wisconsin hear the words, 'You have cancer,' every day,” DeGarmo said. “Well, I want to get rid of that statement. That's my life goal.”
In 1973, her mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and died the next year. DeGarmo’s mother-in-law died from breast cancer one Christmas.
And then in 1978 on Valentine’s Day, her 9-year-old daughter Tammi was diagnosed with leukemia and died right after Thanksgiving.
"So, holidays are rough,” DeGarmo said. "Having to watch your child go through that; it’s awful. She sits right here and my mom's over here,” she added, pointing to both shoulders.
In the 1990s, DeGarmo began volunteering for the American Cancer Society and eventually started a committee in Chaseburg, which hosts a Sole Burner fundraiser for the organization each year. That gave her a holiday cancer couldn’t take away.
"I tell everybody every year, to me this is my Christmas,” she said.
Now DeGarmo travels, sharing her story with lawmakers. That's how in August, she met Madison Dr. Christian Capitini, and everything came full circle.
"Meeting him was, like, 39 years of prayers answered for me,” she said.
Capitini, an assistant professor of pediatrics at UW-Health, told DeGarmo that just the day before, a new treatment he helped develop had been approved for pediatric leukemia, which is what killed her daughter 39 years ago.
"I had goosebumps,” DeGarmo said. “I had tears just flowing.”
In short, it's a form of gene therapy that uses one's own cells to fight off cancer in a certain group of patients, with remission rates close to 80 percent (more information here).
"A lot of people are excited about this type of therapy,” Capitini said. “This is really the tip of the iceberg. I think in the future we're going to see similar types of therapies."
"To use your own body to fight your own cancer is unbelievable, and we helped,” DeGarmo.
DeGarmo is often asked where her research money goes. This kind of research is it. According to DeGarmo, Capitini’s first research grant came from the American Cancer Society.
DeGarmo's efforts to craft a cure began small, from a place of indescribable loss, but they grew and grew, into something she couldn't be more proud of.
"Mom would be ecstatic,” she said. “And my daughter, well, I know she's happy because she tells me she's happy, because she's with me."
To help DeGarmo and the Chaseburg Sole Burner committee reach their goal, visit this website.
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