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Connected through caring: Sunnarborg honored with Spirit Award for dedication to helping those with cancer

Yvonne Sunnarborg was honored with the Spirit Award from the Sanford Health Foundation on Wednesday at the Beauty of Hope Luncheon. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- It was 30 years ago when Yvonne Sunnarborg received her cancer diagnosis.

And 1988 was also the year she and her husband, Tom Sunnarborg, opened their home for the Cancer Concerns and Connections support group.

They started the group with another couple, Jack and Pat Reynolds, after they found some peace in sharing about their health.

“We were so comforted by talking with each other that we said maybe our experience can be redeemed if we can offer comfort to others,” Yvonne said.

After 30 years of hosting that support group in their home, Yvonne was honored with the Spirit Award at the Beauty of Hope Luncheon, which was hosted by the Sanford Health Foundation on Wednesday at the Hampton Inn and Suites. Yvonne was set to be a speaker and organizers said it was a no-brainer to also give her the award.

When she started the group, Yvonne said she thought it would have more of a cozy feeling to host people in their home rather than at another location.

“It seemed like a better setting than the medical setting, because for a long time I would see that blue ‘H’ that meant hospital, and my stomach would roll over,” she said.

But now, with the new Joe Lueken Cancer Center at Sanford’s Bemidji campus, Yvonne is helping to host the support group there. The center, which had its grand opening in late August, is patient-centered and was designed to have more of a relaxing ambience than a traditional medical facility.

The Beauty of Hope event cost $50 to attend, with proceeds helping to provide mammography screenings for women unable to afford them. The luncheon featured food, speakers, themed tables, a fashion show and more. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the Sanford Health Foundation has other events going on to support the cause such as the “Pink Hair, I Care” campaign, “Pink the Rink” this weekend at the BSU men’s hockey game, an auction of a pink guitar signed by Brad Paisley and more.

During her speech, Yvonne talked about her journey with cancer and shared remarkable stories of her life over the years since her diagnosis. Cancer has taught her a lot, but also changed her and brought her closer to Tom and the rest of her family.

When the Sunnarborgs and their children go through tough times, they imagine a literal circle and whoever is going through a low point is in the middle. That person is showered with love and support.

“This is one of the things cancer did for us,” Yvonne said.

She said she was surprised to receive the award, but also that she doesn’t want it to be about awards.

“I’m so grateful for my life, and that this is the way I’m rewired, to care for others,” Yvonne said after the event.

Jillian Gandsey

Jillian Gandsey is the Multimedia Editor at the Bemidji Pioneer. She is an Iron Range native and a 2013 graduate of Bemidji State University. Follow Jillian on Twitter and Instagram @jilliangandsey. Contact her at 218-333-9786, 218-996-1216 or at 

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