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Cottage Grove girl's leukemia fight inspires Relay for Life participation

Having completed her intensive chemotherapy treatment for leukemia, Brianna Wukawitz has returned to the soccer field as a referee for youth games. The 14-year-old's family and friends created three teams - "Brianna's Beasts" - to participate in the upcoming Relay for Life of South Washington County. Submitted photo

After Brianna Wukawitz started treatment for her leukemia, the teenager's family decided to organize a team for this year's Relay for Life of South Washington County.

They planned a team of family and some friends. Then Brianna's eighth-grade classmates and soccer teammates wanted to join.

"It started out with one team and then all these kids came out of the woodwork and wanted to do it, and it's like, 'OK, let's see how many teams we can get together,'" said Denise Schmidt, Brianna's aunt.

Beyond the kids were more family friends ready to walk for the cause. Relatives, too, wanted to participate. The result was a group of 45 strong, known as "Brianna's Beasts," split into three teams.

"At this point, I don't think she realizes that she has so many people supporting her," said Sheila Wukawitz, Brianna's mother.

Diagnosed with leukemia at age 13, Brianna in early May finished intensive chemotherapy, a process that involved months of weekly chemotherapy treatments. Now 14 years old, she has started the "maintenance" stage of her fight against leukemia, which will include monthly chemotherapy treatment and medication taken at home.

For Brianna's family, walking in Relay for Life is about more than raising money to fight leukemia. The family has been hit hard by cancer. While Brianna has been fighting leukemia her grandmother is three years into her fight against pancreatic cancer. A close family friend suffered from breast cancer and saw her own daughter die of brain cancer, which was detected shortly after the woman's breast cancer was found. In addition, two of Sheila Wukawitz's uncles died of cancer.

"It's kind of like the Relay is for all," Sheila Wukawitz said. "We've got so many that have been touched with cancer."

Added Schmidt: "It's not like we're walking just for leukemia. We're hitting all types."

The three teams - Brianna's Beasts 1, 2 and 3 - will be hard to miss at the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life June 3-4 at East Ridge High School. Brianna designed a logo and picked out bright fluorescent green T-shirts for the teams. One team, led by Denise Schmidt, will include Brianna's relatives. Another team will be led by Sheri Kellen, a friend of the Wukawitz family. Brianna's cousin Jessica Schmidt will lead the team of teenage friends and classmates.

"Really, the support from family and friends and her friends from school has been more than we ever imagined," Sheila Wukawitz 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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