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Beating the odds
NEWS Relay for life wiederholt
Owen and Joan Wiederholt of Hazel Green will be at the Grant County Relay for Life event on April 21-22 where Owen will be the honorary survivor. - photo by Dena Harris

PLATTEVILLE—A Hazel Green man, who was told he is the longest-surviving metastatic melanoma patient in the United States, has been named as the 2017 Honorary Survivor of the Grant County Relay for Life.

Owen Wiederholt was diagnosed with cancer in 2006. He was told by his oncologist in 2010 that he had just two to six months to live. He was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma, also known as stage IV melanoma, a skin cancer that spreads to other places in the body, such as lymph nodes, tissue under the skin, lungs, liver and brain.

His diagnosis came after a cancerous mole was removed from his back. His doctor thought they got it all, but the cancer had moved to his lymph nodes. Four years later, Owen went in for a check-up and they found 22 tumors throughout his body, including on his heart, liver and lungs.

“I went to Dubuque first,” Owen said. “They told me I was a goner. I was sent to Madison and since it was a fast-growing cancer, they couldn’t do anything. Then I was sent to Milwaukee for a treatment to slow it.”

Even with a large tumor in the left ventricle of his heart, Owen took the chance that it could cause a heart attack. He was able to complete the treatment, but the cancer continued to progress.

It was around that time that one of Owen’s closest friends, Bill Kaiser, heard of a new treatment for metastatic melanoma, known as PLX4032, available at five different hospitals throughout the United States. Owen’s family researched the treatment and decided it was worth a shot. Owen contacted Chicago, the closest location, but they wouldn’t take him because they didn’t think he could handle the treatment. He contacted Sioux City, Iowa, with more positive results. The doctor took a chance on him and it paid off. He participated in a lifesaving cancer treatment at the June E. Nylen Cancer Center, approximately 300 miles from his home.

“They got me into the treatment trial and within three months I felt better,” Owen said.

He started the first phase of the clinical trial in October 2010, receiving treatment with the oral drug twice a day. He was scanned every 12 weeks through the initial part of his therapy to observe the multiple areas of tumors in his body. His results were successful, so he was entered into an extended trial using the same drug.

Approximately three years ago, Owen had ongoing headaches and leg pain.

“I had a headache for about two weeks straight. My doctor in Sioux City said to see my doctor in Dubuque for it. My legs also started hurting pretty bad. The doctor said I probably had arthritis and sent me home. I was home for another week, still in a lot of pain, when I called my doctor in Sioux City again. It was a Tuesday. I told him what was going on. The doctor talked to my wife and told her he wanted me there by Tuesday night.”

An MRI revealed a brain lesion the size of an orange that was removed by a neurosurgeon at Mercy Hospital in Sioux City. After surgery and seeing how big the tumor was and where it was located, the doctors told Owen that the leg pain was the onset of paralysis. They figured that within two or three days he would have been paralyzed as a result of the tumor. Post-surgery, he received radiation therapy at the June E. Nylen Cancer Center. His oncologist started his drug 28 days after surgery and a scan at that time showed he was cancer-free.

“They [the staff at the June E. Nylen Cancer Center] were on top of everything,” Owen said. “The nurse even asked my wife how many hotel rooms we would need before we left for my surgery. That’s how good of a hospital it is. They were always one step ahead of you. I had my surgery on Wednesday and was home by Monday.”

Owen has been told that he is the longest-surviving metastatic melanoma patient in the United States. He is this year’s honorary survivor for the Grant County Relay for Life.

Relay for Life is the world’s largest fundraising event with 4 million participants in 6,000 events worldwide. Each event celebrates people who have battled cancer, remembers those who have been lost to cancer and takes action to fund cancer research.

The Relay for Life of Grant County event will take place on April 21-22, from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m., at The UW-Platteville Williams Fieldhouse in Platteville. The event will include a survivor/caregiver dinner, opening ceremonies, a survivor lap, a basket drawing, concession stands, activities, campsite fundraisers and entertainment. The luminary ceremony is at 10 p.m. Additional entertainment includes Miss Relay, tug of war and karaoke.

Owen and his family have gone to Relay for Life many times.

“I think it’s a good thing,” Owen said. “They do a good job.”

Owen said he was a little shocked to be asked to be the honorary survivor.

“I’ve never asked for anything or needed help for anything,” Owen said. “I’m just glad it is almost over for me. I’m very fortunate.”

He and his wife, Joan, have three children—Luke (Laura), Cody (Becca) and Lacey (Brett)—and one grandchild, Paisley, with a grandson due in June.

“I didn’t think I’d get to see grandchildren,” Owen said.

“It has been quite a ride with this guy,” Joan said. He is known to many people as the miracle man’ and that is what he truly is.”Owen owns and operates an excavating business in Hazel Green, Owen’s Excavating.

The treatment in Sioux City was pills that blocked the cancer. They have now found lesions on his left lung, requiring a new treatment, this time located closer to home, in Madison. It is a little different and Owen and his doctors hope that in another year or so he will be done with treatments.

“My best advice is don’t give up!” Owen said. “I had three doctors tell me I wasn’t going to make it.”