Relay For Life Honorary Chair Jim Ferden Focuses On Hope

When cancer survivor Jim Ferden gets the chance to talk to a person who has been diagnosed with cancer, his message is one of hope.

“It’s not a death sentence by any means,” he said, adding that a positive attitude is important. “Every day, they’re making progress.”

Ferden, 52, will serve as honorary chair for the East Polk County Relay for Life, which will begin at 6 p.m. Friday, June 27, at the Fosston football field. He will speak during the opening ceremonies and walk in the Survivors Lap that follows. The gates open for the relay at 5 p.m.

His 17-year-old son Micah has been a member of the Grace Relay team in Erskine for the past couple of years, and Ferden himself attended the Relay for Life for the first time last year.

“It’s a great fundraising opportunity,” he said. “Someday, hopefully we won’t need it.”

Ferden said it’s important to have regular medical exams, including the colonoscopies, mammograms and prostate exams that are recommended as people age, and to take potential symptoms seriously, such as the unexplained bruises that were among symptoms he dismissed.

“That taught me a good lesson, to pay attention,” he said. “They can do so much with early detection.”

Ferden has twice been diagnosed with hairy-cell leukemia, first in 1997 and again in 2004. It’s an uncommon type of leukemia, with fewer than 2,000 cases diagnosed each year in North America and Europe. The name comes from the “hairy” appearance of the cancerous cells under a microscope.

His first diagnosis was sparked not by cancer symptoms but by a herniated disk in his back that became unbearable. At the hospital in Fosston, tests showed something else was wrong, and he was sent to Fargo.

“The pain in my back saved my life,” he said.

Ferden was treated at Roger Maris Cancer Center in Fargo, where he received chemotherapy for a month. His wife, Carla, stayed home at the time with their two children, Emily, then 2, and Micah, then 6 months, so he was able to recover at home. They lived in Glyndon, Minn., then, but have since 2006 lived in rural McIntosh on the farm his grandparents homesteaded in 1911.

“I was lucky,” he said of his diagnosis and treatment. “I only had to do chemo. A lot of folks have to do both chemo and radiation.”

Jim and Carla celebrated 23 years of marriage June 8, but in 1997, they weren’t sure if they were going to share another anniversary together. It was a year of challenges for other reasons, too. While home from the hospital in March, Ferden spoke to his godfather and cousin, Kermit Ferden, on the telephone one night, and learned the next day that Kermit had died for a heart attack. Carla’s aunt, Milly Hamre, died in May, and her father, Sam Hamre, was diagnosed with cancer in November.

“1997 was a pretty rough year,” Ferden said.

Ferden still gets six-month checkups with Dr. John Leitch, who has been his doctor at Roger Maris Cancer Center since the beginning. Leitch in 2004 diagnosed the return of the cancer.

“The second time around was not anywhere near as big of a deal,” Ferden said. “We caught it early, and the technology had changed. I was only out of work for three weeks. Some people thought I was just on vacation.”

Ferden, who has been a bank manager with the FDIC for 29 years, received chemo at home through a picc line, with the medication housed in a fanny pack. He spent no time in the hospital except a couple of days because of an allergic reaction to the medication.

In last year’s Relay for Life, Ferden walked in his first Survivor’s Lap, where he discovered that he and Jerry Slough shared something besides being school board chairmen (Ferden chairs the Win-E-Mac School Board, while Slough was the Fosston School Board chairman).

“In all our conversations, it never came up that he was a cancer survivor,” Ferden said. “We walked together, told each other our stories.”

Slough’s cancer had been caught early, and his treatment seemed to have worked well, said Ferden, who was shocked when he found out his friend and colleague died in December.

“His cancer came back with a vengeance. … That’s probably one of the things I for sure am going to think about while I walk, to remember him.”