Relay for Life honorary survivor celebrates life

This year's Relay for Life honorary survivor, Jenny Sell, is no stranger to pain. As far back as she can remember, headaches were a part of her life.

This year's Relay for Life honorary survivor, Jenny Sell, is no stranger to pain. As far back as she can remember, headaches were a part of her life.

"I always had headaches," she recalled. "My mother even took me to an eye doctor when I was young, thinking maybe vision problems were the cause."

Sell and her family never did determine the cause and she just lived with the reoccurring pain. She didn't give it much more thought and after graduating from Cloquet High School in 1996, she jump-started her future by moving to Minneapolis two days later.

Sell moved to be with her then-boyfriend, now-husband Pat Sell, who she met while the two worked at Junction Oasis in Carlton in 1994. Wanting to become a nurse, Sell got a job at Abbott Northwestern Hospital.

The move from Cloquet to south Minneapolis was a bit much, however, and although she enjoyed working at the hospital as a certified nursing assistant for nearly a year, they decided to move away from the big city.


"It was a very big change," she said. "I liked the hospital but needed a smaller town."

She and Pat decided to move to the suburb of Burnsville. Jenny eventually took a job at the same company as Pat, making computer chips in Bloomington, and the two worked the night shift together.

They got married in Cloquet in October 1998 and built a house in Farmington, south of Bloomington. Her headaches continued, but since they were so random, she didn't see a doctor about the problem.

"I didn't think they were migraines because I could function in bright light and loud noise," she remembered.

In 2002, shortly before Sell turned 25, the headaches grew more intense.

"I experienced two solid weeks of the worst headaches," she said. "They wouldn't go away and I was more and more tired."

Sell's mother and sister, who is a registered nurse, encouraged her to see a doctor, but she kept thinking she could ride it out.

Then she began experiencing new symptoms in conjunction with the pain. Out of the blue one day, Sell couldn't speak. She could think of the words she wanted to say, but they weren't coming out. Her right hand was becoming numb at different times as well.


The symptoms came and went for the next few weeks but only for moments at a time.

"I joked at work that I was going to have a stroke," she remembered.

Then one night, it lasted longer than usual and happened while Sell was driving a co-worker home after a shift.

"I could drive and everything else was fine, but I could not talk," she said. "Now I was scared."

She called her family doctor that morning but could not schedule an appointment until later in the week. They said if it happened again in the meantime to go to an emergency room.

When it happened that night again, during work, she and her husband drove to an urgent care clinic. They sent the couple to a hospital for a CAT Scan and the doctor told her he'd call with the results. When they went to leave the hospital after the test, however, they were stopped.

"A woman told us we needed to go back and see the doctor in the urgent care clinic," Sell said. "She wouldn't and couldn't tell us why, and I said 'Well, I must have cancer'."

Sell was correct and said she was 'freaking out' but didn't cry until after they met with the doctor.


"The picture of it in my brain looked huge," she said. "I didn't want to die."

Doctors put Sell on a drug to stop the growth of the tumor and she suddenly felt life was turned upside down.

"I had to tell everyone and I had appointments all the time," she said. "It was crazy."

Her surgeon wanted to schedule surgery as soon as possible and on Sept. 4, she found herself back at Abbott Northwestern, this time as a patient.

"It helped that I knew the hospital and some of the staff and knew I wanted to be treated there," she said.

The day of surgery, Sell's friends and family were crammed in the waiting room.

"The nurses said they had never seen so many people in the waiting room for one person," she said.

The surgery meant to remove the tumor lasted two hours longer than estimated, and proved to be difficult, according to Sell's family members. Subsequently, when they were through, the outlook for long-term recovery was not good. The surgeon couldn't get all of the tumor because it had wrapped itself around main blood vessels.


"It was terrible for Pat and for my family," she said. "I don't really remember it and I'm glad."

Doctors thought chemotherapy and radiation might prove helpful, however, and thinking Sell was largely out of the woods for the moment, many of her family members headed for home.

Around midnight, unfortunately, the nurse in intensive care reported that Sell was unresponsive and had slipped into a coma. A second emergency surgery was performed and Sell's relatives returned to the hospital.

This time, the surgeon was able to remove every part of the tumor he could see with the naked eye and he thought Sell would live three to six more months.

Sell spent the next two weeks recovering in the hospital, first in the intensive care unit in a coma. Her first sign of movement came a few days later after her mother-in-law told her she'd be going to her house with Pat to "mess up her kitchen."

"My mother-in-law isn't a cook and I am," explained Sell. "I heard that and apparently moved my hand which was the first time I had done that. I'm glad she said that!"

Once out of intensive care, Sell moved to the neuro part of the hospital, which is where Sell had worked. She knew several of the nurses and her primary nurse even bought her a present.

"She got me a pug beanie baby because we were supposed to get a real one six weeks later," Sell said. "She and the other nurses were the best."


Friends and family were never far away either.

"We had so many flowers it was like a greenhouse," Sell remembered. "People were praying for me, they called, sent me letters. They came out of the wall. It was so amazing I don't even know any way to even say it."

Sell had a long road to recovery ahead of her, having to relearn most things including speaking, cooking and writing. First, just sitting up in bed would cause her to feel faint. Gradually she was able to use a walker, which was great progress, because Sell could have been paralyzed on her right side due to the tumor.

"I wasn't ever paralyzed, so that was awesome," she said.

By the time she left the hospital, she could speak five words, make a grilled cheese sandwich and eat by herself, albeit with some spilling. She practiced getting in and out of cars, walking and some running, as well. She was happy to be alive but wished she could speak the names of her family members.

"I couldn't say the names of my mom, sister or husband," she said. "But they and my other family members were all there for me."

Her life revolved around physical therapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy, inbetween doctor visits. Pat continued to work nights and drive her to her appointments during the day.

"He is so awesome," she said. "A lot of my friends and family said for a 25-year-old guy, this was a lot [to handle] and that other guys might have run out, but he stayed."


Both he and Sell's sister, Amy, attended a care conference to learn the skills needed to support and care for her. In the beginning Sell couldn't stay home alone and Pat was with her in the day and Amy, at night. Pat also had to give Sell shots when her white blood cell count was low.

"I couldn't drive then and I had seizures, which is pretty common with brain injuries," Sell said. "It was hard."

She also began chemotherapy and radiation treatment for 1-1/2 years. During that time, she had blood work done every week and MRI scans every two months. Her hair, which she had worn long all her life, also began falling out due to the radiation. She didn't lose it all, however, and she refused to cut the hair she had left.

"It was a terrible thing for me," she said. "I had hair left at the bottom of my head so I just wore bandanas and left it sticking out of the back. Eventually I had to chop it more because it looked ridiculous."

Because of the chemo and radiation, Sell cannot have children, which also has been emotional for her.

"Maybe we could adopt someday or maybe it's just not in the cards," she said. "It's been super hard on me but I have to be positive. After all the things I had to go through I'm glad to be alive."

Thankfully, Sell has no less than 16 nieces and nephews to dote on, two of whom live four blocks away.

In the five years since her surgery, Sell has never given up her efforts to recover. She takes 11 pills a day and hasn't had a seizure in years. Her speech is good, although sometimes she still struggles to get the words out. She and Pat got and enjoy their pug, Co-jack. Sell walks the dog as exercise and to keep up her strength. She can't work full-time, however, because the medication makes her extremely drowsy. She does Pampered Chef home kitchen parties on a part-time basis.

"[Pat and I] really realized that you just have to live one day at a time," she said. "I could have been gone five years ago. Things like taking the garbage out are not that important."

Sell eventually learned the cancer type she had - anaplastic ependymoma - is one typically found in children.

"We don't know when or how or why," she said. "Maybe I had that tumor forever, and maybe those headaches were because of it. We'll never know."

As of her latest check-up in May, Sell remains cancer free.

Sell will speak with her sister, Amy, at the 13th Annual Carlton County Relay for Life at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College on Friday at 6 p.m. before leading other cancer survivors in the Survivor's Lap, which begins the event.

Being the honorary survivor is bittersweet for her because her grandfather, Joe Randall, died in January. He and Sell had attended the event together for the past four years and Randall also had cancer.

"I'm actually doing this for him, as a tribute," she said.

She was also inspired by last year's honorary survivor, Sara [Homstad] Baars.

"Her story was so meaningful to me, I stood up [after her talk] and gave her a standing ovation," Sell said. "She had a totally different cancer but she went through so many of the same things," she said. After the event, the two became good friends.

Participating in the event also serves as a reminder of how many people are affected by cancer.

"You don't realize how many people have cancer ... it makes me more aware."

Although Sell will stay at the Relay as long as she can, fatigue has previously kept her from staying through the night.

"I walk until I get tired," she said. "That's me. I'll never give up."

Pine Journal Editor Lisa Baumann can be contacted at: .

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