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Cottage Grove's Wukawitz is honorary survivor for Relay For Life of South Washington County

Brianna Wukawitz (left) is asking her cousin, Jessica Schmidt, to help share her story about fighting leukemia during the 2012 Relay For Life of South Washington County. Bulletin photo by Scott Wente

Brianna Wukawitz's fight against leukemia gave her two perspectives she wants to share with others.

First, the 15-year-old said, people shouldn't dwell over small matters. Things could be much worse.

"People have it a lot harder," Wukawitz said.

Yet her own cancer battle also taught her not to assume the worst: "I want people to know that things can change fast."

That was the case for Wukawitz, who was diagnosed with leukemia nearly two years ago, saw chemotherapy fight off the cancer after just one treatment and is looking ahead to a full recovery.

The Cottage Grove teen was selected as the honorary survivor for this year's Relay For Life of South Washington County.

Wukawitz will cut a ribbon during the Relay's survivor lap, but she also has an opportunity to tell Relay participants about her leukemia fight. For that, she'll get help from someone who was among her biggest supporters after her diagnosis: her cousin, Jessica Schmidt, a former Cottage Grove resident.

Wukawitz doesn't like public speaking, so she'll prepare a speech for Schmidt to read at the event that draws thousands of people.

"It's easy for me to talk about because I've gone to chemo and I've been with her," Schmidt said.

Wukawitz's story has had some unusual - and fortunate - twists.

Two years ago Wukawitz, a soccer player, started suffering from back pain. It got so bad that she was hospitalized and could barely move. On Aug. 22, 2010, doctors discovered that the 13-year-old had leukemia.

Her first chemotherapy treatment came about four days later. The initial dose was effective.

"It's kind of common for it to go quickly, but not that quickly," said Wukawitz, considered a "rapid responder" for the effectiveness of her treatment.

Still, treatment continued, first in weekly doses and later in monthly chemotherapy. Wukawitz figures that she missed about 100 days of school - "I still got straight A's and B's," she said proudly - and had many hospital visits. The first hospital stay was the most difficult. To cope she made a list of rules for relatives and friends to follow when they visited her.

That list included "no stupid jokes" from her father, she said, and no crying in the room.

"When I would see people cry it would make me cry too," she recalled.

Wukawitz tried to take the intensive treatments in stride, realizing that she needed the medicine despite any pain and frustration that accompanied the treatment.

"I wanted to get better, so I just let them do what they needed to do," she said.

Schmidt said even as a teenager Wukawitz understood what was happening and kept track of what medications she was being given.

"It kind of helped me on my biology tests," Wukawitz said with a smile.

A year ago, Wukawitz transitioned into a maintenance stage of her leukemia fight. That coincided with the 2011 Relay For Life event, for which Wukawitz's family and friends organized into three teams dubbed "Brianna's Beasts." A similar turnout from her closest supporters is expected at this year's event.

Wukawitz's final chemotherapy session is scheduled for Dec. 7 of this year. She said she and her family and friends will celebrate, maybe with fancy cupcakes.

The bigger celebration may come six months after that final treatment. That is when doctors will know whether her cancer returned.

"We've decided that it's not (going to)," she said.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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