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Tough as Stone: Kelly Stone refuses to let Stage IV cancer diagnosis take her off the beat

Radio personality Todd Haugen (left) and news director Kelly Stone conduct a Chat-About interview with Mayana Rice with the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board. — Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer1 / 3
Listening is a key element to radio success for news director Kelly Stone. — Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer2 / 3
Paul Bunyan Broadcasting news director Kelly Stone still arrives at the station every day at 4 a.m. so she can prepare the 6 a.m. news broadcast. — Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer3 / 3

Journalists are a cynical bunch, for the most part. They make their living talking to politicians, criminals and accident victims. And if they aren’t careful, all that bad news can actually start to darken their outlook on life.  

That’s why it’s so surprising to talk to Kelly Stone, the news director at Paul Bunyan Broadcasting. She exudes optimism, even after an entire career’s worth of reporting as a radio, TV and print journalist for news outlets all across the Midwest.  

What makes Stone’s sunny attitude even more remarkable is the fact she was diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer in 2011. After a brief remission, she found out earlier this year that it’s come back, in a spot near her spine that would make the tumor difficult for a surgeon to remove amid a forest of vital nerves. But Stone still arrives at the station every day at 4 a.m. so she can prepare the 6 a.m. news broadcast.

In an unwaveringly candid interview given just before she covered a Bemidji City Council meeting on Monday, Stone talked about what life has been like since her diagnosis and how she stays positive in the face of a deadly foe.

“It’s going to be a chronic thing, probably for the rest of my life,” she said in an even, calm voice; almost as if she was on the air. “We phrase our goals in very simple terms: ‘I want to be able to work, I want to be able to do things with my family, so let’s see if we can find a combination of treatments that will allow me to do that for as long as possible.’”

An Iowa native, Stone first lived in Bemidji as a student at Bemidji State. Graduating with a degree in mass communications, she changed career paths from print to broadcast journalism when she entered an unforgiving job market.

“Initially I thought I was going to be a newspaper reporter but the job openings were just a little more plentiful in radio when I graduated,” she said.

Nowadays, radio news jobs are the ones fewer and further between, so in 2010, Stone jumped at the chance to be news director at Paul Bunyan — a position that hadn’t been vacant for 30 years. She took the job even though it meant moving away from her husband, Ross, in Fargo. They were living apart like that in February 2011 when a routine checkup found a Stage IV tumor.  Now, Ross lives with her in Bemidji and drives her to chemotherapy treatments.

Since the experience of being treated for cancer differs for every person, it isn’t easy for Stone to say definitively what somebody else might have to deal with if they’re diagnosed.

“It’s hard to let people know what to expect, or what their friends or family might have to experience if they go through it,” she said.

The reason Stone is speaking out about her own experience is to spread the word about ovarian cancer, she said.  The symptoms are easy to overlook, and there’s no reliable way for doctors to screen for warning signs.

Stone said ovarian cancer is also distinct in that, as cancers go, it takes relatively little effort for those afflicted to achieve remission the first time it appears. It only took eight rounds of chemotherapy and some surgery before Stone had a year’s worth of remission. But now Stone’s cancer is back, and she’s facing another deadly aspect of the disease: it can actually adapt itself to better resist treatment, like bacteria mutating to beat antibiotics.

Because ovarian cancer isn’t tied to a lifestyle choice such as lung cancer and smoking or liver cancer and alcohol abuse, some might perceive it as a particularly unfair kind of cancer (if one type could stand out from the others). For Stone, though, the fact her cancer isn’t anyone’s fault is actually liberating.

“If it was something that I felt I had directly brought upon myself, I maybe would have had a tougher time dealing with it,” she said. “The fact is, life isn’t fair, and unfair things happen to all kinds of people. Knowing that you’re not any more special or un-special than anybody else; that’s made it easier for me to handle it.”

Being connected with the outside world helps Stone keep her mind on the bright side of things, she said. She focuses on work, her relationships with other people and exercise to keep a healthy perspective.

“When I was first diagnosed…I would go out walking, and I would find myself just staring at the ground,” she said.  “All of the sudden I realized, ‘This is not good. Look up, let’s look at the people who are walking by, the kids that are having fun, laughing… realize that there’s other people out there.’”

Stone also finds the distraction of Facebook a useful tool for staying upbeat.

“I need to know that there are fun, small things that are happening in my friend’s lives that have nothing to do with what’s going on with me,” she said.

Being in Bemidji has helped, too.

 “There are so many communities where I think this would have been way more challenging,” she said. “People in Bemidji are so accepting of people; whatever burdens they’re carrying or challenges they’re facing… there’s no stereotype that you have to live up to. If you’re being yourself, the best that you can be, I find that the people in Bemidji really respect that. I would (cover) council meetings with my little stocking cap on… and it was business as usual.”

Stone said although ovarian cancer sneaks up on people, there are some warning signs.  Fatigue, aches and pains and feeling full, yet hungry all could be indications of a problem, she said.  She encourages women to get informed about the disease.

“It can happen to very fit, young women,” she said. “The symptoms are so sneaky that you need be aware that that’s a possibility… make sure when you go in for your regular appointments, that your doctor checks. Let them know that’s something you want to be vigilant for.”

Zach Kayser
Zach Kayser covers local government and city issues for the Pioneer. He previously worked for the Wadena Pioneer Journal, and is an alumni of the University of Minnesota, Morris. 
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