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Kelly Fuhrman, a lifelong nonsmoker, vows she will win her battle with a rare form of small cell lung cancer. She and her family moved to Bemidji just over a year ago as her husband, the Rev. Corey Fuhrman, answered the call to serve as senior pastor at First Lutheran Church of Bemidji. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

‘I’m going to beat this’ — Pastor’s wife, despite never smoking, battles lung cancer

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BEMIDJI — Cancer never dealt with Kelly.

The words, initially offered as encouragement and now printed on a bracelet around her wrist, have become Kelly Fuhrman’s motto as she battles a rare form of small cell lung cancer.

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“That’s kind of my philosophy,” Kelly said last week, sitting beside her husband in their home north of Bemidji. “I’m going to beat this, I am.”

The Fuhrmans — Kelly; her husband, the Rev. Corey Fuhrman; and their children, 14-year-old Carly, 11-year-old Jonah and 8-year-old Jacob — are relatively new to the area, having moved here in August 2012 when Corey answered the call to serve as senior pastor at First Lutheran Church of Bemidji.

“I remember apologizing along the way, saying, ‘This is nothing you signed up, to get a pastor with a sick family,’ and they said to me, ‘This is nothing you signed up for either,’” Corey said, reflecting on how the church responded to Kelly’s diagnosis. “They’ve been nothing but supportive the entire time.”

In fact, it was his church that planned a local benefit, to be held Saturday, to support the Fuhrmans.

Coming to bemidji The Fuhrmans weren’t looking to leave North Dakota, where Corey served two Fargo congregations over the previous 12 years.

But, as his current congregation flourished, his and Kelly’s schedules just became busier.

“We had just had a conversation about just how crazy our life had gotten,” Corey said. “The letter (from First Lutheran) came out of the blue and we set it aside, on the bed stand. We didn’t even open it the first night.”

They did, eventually, and, intrigued, they called around seeking input on why they shouldn’t consider moving to Bemidji.

But no one had anything negative to say, praising the church and the community, so the Fuhrmans took a leap of faith.

From leg pain to lung cancer In November, Kelly began experiencing leg pain. There would be excruciating pain one day then it would subside. But it would come back, and go away again.

By March, it had gotten so bad she could barely walk. When she started having back spasms, a doctor ordered an MRI, thinking it was a pinched nerve or herniated disk.

“They called me at home that night and said I had abnormal bone marrow numbers,” Kelly said. “It wasn’t a pinched nerve.”

The day she returned for additional MRIs, the radiologist took her history and immediately ordered a CAT scan.

“He came in, closed the door and said, ‘We found spots,’” she said. They were in the liver, her pelvic area, lower back and lungs.

He recommended a liver biopsy and said she could either come back or, with a full staff on hand, he offered to do it right then. Kelly opted to do it immediately.

Several days later, she got a probable diagnosis: a neuroendocrine tumor.

Kelly asked to be referred to the Mayo Clinic. On April 22, she went down to Rochester for a full day of testing, and on April 23, she was diagnosed with cancer and started chemotherapy 45 minutes later.

“It’s small cell lung cancer but she never had any lung difficulties,” Corey said.

“Nothing at all,” Kelly agreed. “It all started with leg pain. The reason it was leg pain was because it was already in the bones, it had already spread.”

‘Our goal is to beat it’ Until recently, Kelly and Corey had been traveling to Rochester for three days every three weeks as she underwent chemo.

But in August, her chemo treatments were paused after she developed blood clots in her left leg and lungs and spent two days in the hospital. She now gets injections twice a day to combat the clots.

Meanwhile, her doctor ordered a chemo break until December after new scans revealed the cancer wasn’t growing.

“Since it’s seems that the cancer is lying dormant, we’re just going to let it sleep and we’ll look again in December,” Corey said, noting that the break will give Kelly’s body time to recover and strengthen.

In the meantime, Kelly must pay attention to her body and report any new pain, particularly in her legs.

“That would mean that it’s probably time to get down (to Rochester) again,” she said.

It’s an emotional time, she admitted, wondering at every twinge, every pain, ‘Is it back? Is it growing?’

“To know that you’re allowing something to grow inside you and not know it, I can only imagine,” Corey said.

Kelly’s is a type of cancer usually found in 50- or 60-year-old lifelong smokers. Kelly herself has never smoked or been around second-hand smoke.

“The doctor basically said there’s no reason wasting your energy trying to figure that out (why she got it),” Corey said.

Her cancer is not likely curable or operable. Corey said the doctor would not offer a prognosis because unlike most of her peers, Kelly is young and healthy.

Still, the Fuhrmans acknowledge the odds are not in their favor. Six percent of those diagnosed live five years after their diagnosis.

“Our goal is to beat it,” Kelly said, emphatically.

“Because there are 6 percent who do,” Corey added.

‘God will see me through’ The couple, married for 16 years after initially meeting as staff members at Luther Crest Bible Camp in Alexandria, said God is carrying them through this journey, beginning with their relocation, planned to provide more opportunities for Kelly to be at home.

Not long after the diagnosis, their children once asked, ‘So we moved here so you could get sick?’

Kelly recalled answering, “Obviously God knew that Mom needed to be home.”

“At the pace we were running (before), she would have had no time to be sick,” Corey said.

Additionally, four days before Kelly would receive her diagnosis, her mother retired, moving up the date by several months.

“She was going to retire in the fall and she said, ‘You know, for some reason, I feel I should move my retirement up,’” Kelly said.

She retired April 19; Kelly got her diagnosis on April 23. Her mother and aunt together come to Bemidji to care for the children when Kelly and Corey go to Rochester.

“Honestly, I know that God’s going to see me through,” Kelly said. “I really believe that.”

It’s a message they share repeatedly, with their children, extended family and friends.

Prayers and support are coming from throughout the country. A previous benefit was held in July in Fargo and others have volunteered to help in countless ways.

Kelly’s former coworkers with the Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton School District ordered specialty mommy blankets for the Fuhrman children — blankets for each child featuring photos with Kelly. Kelly herself received a blanket too, one with images of herself with each of her three children.

Her CaringBridge site — caringbridge.org/visit/kellyfuhrman — also has been a blessing, to be able to share updates on her battle and received continuous positive reinforcement, the family said. More than 25,000 people have visited the site since it was established and Kelly says she visits it daily.

“I honestly go there all the time,” she said. “Sometimes, when I’m emotional, feeling down, like ‘Oh my goodness, I can’t believe I have cancer,’ I look at that and feel better.”

Indeed, it was on that site that someone posted what would become her motto: Cancer never dealt with Kelly.

“We’re both strong together,” she said, looking toward Corey. “I’m going to beat this.”

 If you go: What: Benefit & Auction for Kelly Fuhrman

When: 2-6 p.m. Saturday at Bemidji Town & Country Club

Cost: Free-will donations.

Details: Silent auction, appetizers and beverages, games and kids’ activities.

Other options: Donations can be made online at gofundme.com/KellyFuhrman or by mailing a check payable to “Kelly Fuhrman” to Security Bank USA, 1025 Paul Bunyan Drive NW, Bemidji MN 56601.

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