Our Neighbors....Thelma Strandberg

Thelma Strandberg is a survivor. She's been on her own since the age of 18, supported herself following the untimely death of her father, worked her way through college, persevered after a failed marriage - and surmounted cancer for the past 60 y...

Thelma Strandberg is a survivor. She's been on her own since the age of 18, supported herself following the untimely death of her father, worked her way through college, persevered after a failed marriage - and surmounted cancer for the past 60 years.

As this year's honorary cancer survivor at the Carlton County Relay for Life, Strandberg's life story lends testimony to those who will walk beside her.

Strandberg grew up in Tamarack, where her father worked in the woods and she and her siblings enjoyed the carefree life of spending much of their time outdoors. In retrospect, however, Strandberg admits her cancer problem likely had its start when she was a child.

"We were encouraged to play outside in the sun," she related, "and being fair complexioned, I sunburned rapidly. Our childhood summers were a series of burning and peeling."

Her family moved to Oregon in 1937 when her father secured work there. Thelma, who was 16 at the time and had just finished high school, recalls sharing driving duties with her father on the way west in their Model A sedan.


"It was quite an experience," she recollected. "At that time, most of the roads were being worked on and all full of muck and mud."

Sadly, her father contracted double pneumonia and died at the age of 41.

"That was my first nursing experience," she related. "I took care of him a lot of the time because my mother had to be away at work and my sisters were both still in school. I was making plans to go to the University of Oregon, but when he died I had to go out and make my own living."

Prior to that time, she had hoped to become a nurse.

"My mother would pass out whenever she saw blood," she grinned, "so I was dressing wounds from the time I was knee-high to a grasshopper! I didn't mind it at all, even though in those days we didn't have gauze. Instead, we just tore up an old sheet. We had adhesive tape, but we didn't have any Band Aids. It was a challenge, but a very good experience."

After her father's death, Strandberg's family moved back to Minnesota because her mother was licensed to teach here. The young Thelma took whatever employment she could get, working in a store, cleaning a theater in Duluth and babysitting.

A year or so later, she had earned enough money to pay for her first semester of college, so she enrolled at the University of Minnesota-Duluth (a state teachers' college at the time).

She had to switch gears to studying teaching instead of nursing because she found couldn't work and take nursing classes at the same time.


"I did some babysitting for my room and board and moved forward from that point on," she related.

Strandberg put herself through college in four years, got married a couple of years later, and had two children. She taught first grade in the Aitkin County schools, where she was the first to introduce the gifted child program.

"My kids were so far ahead that it challenged me to do something that could keep them interested," she explained.

When Strandberg was in her late 30s, she noticed that a strange, shiny eruption had appeared between her eyebrows. Her doctor diagnosed it as a cystic oil gland and said to just leave it alone. And since she saw no significant changes in it over a period of years, she wasn't unduly concerned.

Her husband, a sign painter, got a job working for the Air Force base near Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1953, and after spending a summer there, he moved his family up north as well.

Thelma taught school in Fairbanks, where the student population was made up of children from all over the world, some of whom couldn't even speak the English language.

"Once I asked the principal why I seemed to get all those kids assigned to my classroom," said Strandberg, "and she said to me, 'Because you know what to do!'"

Strandberg's teaching abilities had come to the attention of school administrators long before she ever went to work for them, however.


"Evidently, somebody had contacted my superintendent back in Minnesota," she said, "because first thing I knew, I was asked to organize a whole new school district! The community of North Pole didn't have a school yet, and they contacted me and asked if I would help set it up."

Following the formation of the district, Strandberg was hired as principal for the North Pole School.

Another challenge soon came her way as well. The University of Alaska-Fairbanks, where Strandberg was taking graduate classes, wanted new curriculum guides established in the field of language arts. She and a handful of others were appointed to tackle the task, and the series of curriculum guides they compiled gained recognition far and wide.

"The teachers just loved them," she said. "We wanted them to be interesting, short and directly to the point. I had people comment on them from all over and had requests for them from all over the country."

And while Strandberg's professional life was thriving, her personal life wasn't on as positive a track.

In 1955, changes became noticeable in the lesion on her face. The surface became scaly, it bled every time she washed her face, and the spot appeared to be enlarging.

Her doctor in Fairbanks suggested she go to a skin clinic in Seattle, but since she wanted to go home to Minnesota to visit her family, she opted instead to see a dermatologist in Duluth.

He removed the tumor on Strandberg's face, had it biopsied and discovered it was cancerous.


"It was a shock, especially since I was only in my 30s at the time," she said.

At that time the treatment involved radiation, which left a large purple burn and a scar between her eyes that lasted for many years.

The dermatologist recommended that Strandberg keep a close eye on her skin from that time on, since there was an increased likelihood that other tumors might appear.

Strandberg's marriage had also started to deteriorate at the time, and she decided to file for divorce.

Eventually, she had the good fortune to meet Moose Lake native Emerson Strandberg, who was operating his own floor covering business in Fairbanks. The two were married in 1968.

"When I met Emerson, things changed," she mused. "He was so diametrically the opposite of my first husband. He was good to my kids, his kids loved me and my kids loved him very much. We got along just marvelously."

The two decided to move back to Mahtowa that same year, where Emerson became a building inspector and Thelma went to work for the job service in Moose Lake.

Shortly after moving back to Minnesota, Strandberg had several small lesions removed from her skin during subsequent visits to her dermatologist. Soon, she discovered the original purple scar on her face had developed lesions around its edges as well. The dermatologist recommended MOHS micrographic surgery, which allows for the selective removal of a skin cancer with the preservation of as much of the surrounding normal tissue as is possible. It is especially useful for tumors located near vital functional or cosmetic structures of the face.


"The surgeon peeled the radiation scar off like an onion," Strandberg explained, "and then we sat in the waiting room while they tested it. I was called back into surgery three times to remove tiny, microscopic spots they had missed."

She said she wound up with a hole approximately the size and depth of a half dollar, and today she still has a very fine line between her eyes marking the spot where the cancerous lesion was removed.

Then, in 1995, she developed a strange-looking pink bump on her nose that didn't go away and it proved to be cancerous as well. Since it was so deep, she required plastic surgery following its removal, and the scar is still noticeable today, though fading.

In 1998, Standberg's husband, who had been so supportive and observant of her skin conditions over the years, developed prostate problems, which rapidly progressed to bone cancer.

"It was my turn to care for a very ill cancer patient," said Strandberg, "which I did for the best of my ability for nine months until it was all over for him."

Since that time, Strandberg has lived on her own, keeping busy with sewing, garage saling, and painting - a passion that both she and Emerson shared. In fact, the walls of her home are filled with the paintings the two of them did of the Alaskan wildlife and landscape.

In addition, Strandberg said reading is her "avocation."

"I don't like all those popular novels, though," she qualified. "I want to be able to learn something!"


In the meantime, she's continuing to keep an eye on any possible problems that might arise with her skin cancer - and she said she is honored to have been asked to represent all cancer survivors at next week's Relay for Life event.

Strandberg said surviving skin cancer has had a marked impact on her life - and her lifestyle.

"Now I wear a big hat!" she exclaimed. "I've always been a tough Finn, and I'm 89 now. I don't let much get me down."

Pine Journal Publisher/ reporter Wendy Johnson can be contacted at: .

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