Grace for the Journey



LeAnn Ishaug moves her foot in rhythm as she recalls a favorite childhood memory: dance lessons on the family farm in northwestern Minnesota.

“Other kids got to sleep in on Saturday mornings, but not us,” says the 43-year-old, eyes sparkling. “At 6 a.m. we’d hear the polka music and Dad would call us down for dance lessons in the dining room. Mom would be in the kitchen fixing a big farm breakfast.”

LeAnn still loves music, but can no longer dance. A brain cancer survivor for 31 years, she feels lucky to walk and live on her own. Today LeAnn, her sister Kathy Smith and their mom, Betty Ishaug, gather at Kathy’s lake home to share stories about surviving, caregiving – and life.

Remembering …

LeAnn vividly remembers many happy times: gopher trapping, running through sunflower fields and the whole family watching “The Sound of Music” – still her favorite movie.

But she remembers the seizures, too. They began in second grade, but nobody knew why. Her doctors at MeritCare, now Sanford, in Fargo kept a close watch, including CT scans every six months. Even with medication, the seizures happened weekly.

“All five of us kids got involved in caring for LeAnn,” says Kathy. “Mom was a nurse and taught us exactly what to do to keep her safe.” When LeAnn sensed a seizure coming on, they’d clear chairs away, make sure she was lying down and insert a padded tongue blade in her mouth to prevent injury.

A scan in sixth grade revealed a rapidly growing brain tumor. Surgery and radiation therapy cured the cancer, but LeAnn’s life took an unhappy turn.

“Back then there wasn’t the openness and awareness that there is today,” says LeAnn. “Classmates treated me like I had the plague. The teasing and bullying seemed worse than the cancer.”

Betty remembers LeAnn getting off the bus in tears. “I later found out that kids would tease her by pulling off her wig,” she says.

Kathy, along with three brothers and a younger sister, tried to protect LeAnn. “Not that it did any good, but I’d yell at them,” she says. Today she tenderly arranges LeAnn’s hair as they get ready for a photo.

Healing begins

The rough years behind her, LeAnn earned a college degree in American Studies, minors in African American Studies and Native American Studies, while working as a nursing assistant in the cancer unit at MeritCare Hospital, now Sanford Medical Center Fargo. She also pursued religious life in a convent.

The nursing assistant job brought unexpected gifts. “It was important to me to treat cancer patients with the respect they deserved. I loved them,” says LeAnn. “They helped me get beyond my past and forgive those who hurt me.”

Kathy, an intensive care nurse for years, took note. “LeAnn spoke of the rewards of caring for the courageous cancer patients,” she says.

Inspired by LeAnn, Kathy began working in outpatient infusion at Roger Maris Cancer Center. She also works with “embrace,” Roger Maris’ Cancer Survivorship Program. “I learn so much from my patients – strength, hope, humor,” she says. “And it all started with LeAnn. She taught me grace.”

Laughing angels

Supported by faith, family and friends, LeAnn survived another brain tumor at age 34. It wasn’t cancer, but caused mental and physical disabilities.

No longer able to work or drive, LeAnn reinvented herself as a scrapbooker – a hobby she and Kathy share. LeAnn’s scrapbook in memory of their uncle Percy won “Best of Show” at the Clay County Fair. She also enjoys making homemade greeting cards with her younger sister, Colleen.

“Our dream is to build a cabin by the lake for our hobbies,” she says.

“One of my favorite quotes is ‘Where there’s hope, there’s an angel,’” says LeAnn. “I’m so blessed to be surrounded by angels.”

Learn more about Sanford Cancer.

Posted Date: January 2011

Grace for the Journey

“Just slap on a little lipstick – you’ll be fine,” says cancer survivor LeAnn Ishaug. But LeAnn and her family know it takes more than lipstick to survive cancer – they’ve been doing it for 31 years.