Sharing a journey, making a difference

Lisa Fontanna of Waconia is the Honorary Survivor for the 5th annual Relay For Life of Waconia, which will be held on the Carver County Fairgrounds on Friday, Aug. 15. For more information about the Relay, see Pages 7 and 8. (Patriot photo by Todd Moen)
Lisa Fontanna of Waconia is the Honorary Survivor for the 5th annual Relay For Life of Waconia, which will be held on the Carver County Fairgrounds on Friday, Aug. 15. For more information about the Relay, see Pages 7 and 8. (Patriot photo by Todd Moen)

If you run into Lisa Fontanna of Waconia, don’t tell her she looks great, even if she does. As someone who is battling carcinoid cancer, Fontanna would prefer to focus on things other than appearances.

“I don’t look like someone who has Stage 4 cancer and is dying,” said Fontanna, who was diagnosed on Jan. 27, 2012. “When people see you, they say you look so good — you want to punch them in the face. What they’re really saying is you don’t look like you have cancer, that you’re not bald, gray and bloated. It doesn’t make my cancer any less. I have good days and bad days. People don’t see me on the bad days so if you see me out and about, it’s a good day. Just give me a hug and don’t say anything, or just ask, ‘How’s the journey?’”

For Fontanna, the journey began many years ago when she found herself battling chronic ulcers.

“For years, I had suffered from ulcers. In 2009, I had all of my stomach removed along with some of my intestines. I had that done down at Mayo and they told me it was physically impossible for me to have another ulcer again,” said Fontanna, who despite the procedure, still developed ulcers in both 2010 and 2011.

In 2011, Fontanna underwent a barrage of tests to find the cause of the ulcers, which would ultimately cause her to bleed to death if left untreated. The pain they caused, she recalled, was significant. Doctors thought that the ulcers had perforated into her liver, and while investigating that concern, they discovered Fontanna’s carcinoid cancer, which by that time had already reached Stage 3.

“When they told me, they never used the word cancer,” recalled Fontanna, who had five tumors removed within the next few days. Chemotherapy sessions followed and for awhile, things seemed to be going all right.

“My chemo was a monthly injection with a needle about three inches long that went into my hip muscle,” she said. “You could barely walk for one to two weeks because it hurt so bad.”

About six months later, things took a turn for the worse as other cancerous spots began to show up.

“Originally, it was just the five tumors that were removed but over the last two years, we’ve watched it spread to my liver, my lungs and my brain,” she said, noting that her cancer is quite rare — only 11,000 people worldwide are diagnosed with carcinoid cancer each year — and at this point, has no cure.

Although she went through chemotherapy for six months, Fontanna acknowledged that in her case, all the chemo does is slow the cancer down. Citing the financial strain that regular chemotherapy would put on her family, she has chosen to wait for the cancer to grow bigger so they can more easily cut it out.

“I’d rather do a surgery every couple of years (as opposed to regular chemotherapy),” she said, noting that while not everyone might agree with her, she is content with the path she has chosen.

“When I was first diagnosed, I asked God for a certain amount of time. Anything after that is a blessing,” she said. “I don’t need a miracle to save my life. I just need to get to the day that I’ve asked for and then I can be at rest. It’s my journey.”

Although she noted that she has her good days, Fontanna’s condition has left her with constant fatigue, chronic diarrhea, and a potential vitamin deficiency that she addresses by taking 22 vitamin pills daily. Despite the challenges, she remains optimistic and hopes her story can make a positive impact on others.

Recently, Fontanna was asked to serve as the Honorary Cancer Survivor of the 5th annual Relay For Life of Waconia, which will be held at the Carver County Fairgrounds in Waconia on Friday, Aug. 15.

At first, she was reluctant to accept the honor, even though she has been heavily involved in the Relay For Life of Waconia since its inception and she’s the chairwoman of the Volunteer Committee this year.

“I was like, ‘No, I can’t do it,’” she said, recalling the moment when D.J. Teeselink, chairwoman of the Relay For Life of Waconia, first asked her about it a month a two ago. “I’m not a public speaker. I don’t want to get up there and cry. Everyone tells me you’re so strong … the hardest part about cancer is that you have to be strong for everyone else who’s falling apart around you.”

After talking it over with her family, which includes husband John, and children Ben, 15, and Chase, 6, Fontanna decided to accept the invitation to be the Honorary Survivor.

“I only have one thing on my bucket list and that’s to show my children that one person can change the world, one person at a time,” she said, and this would be a great way to accomplish that notion. “I already wrote my speech and I recite it out loud five times a day. You’re so vulnerable during that moment … I pray to God to be there on that stage with me when I’m giving that speech that day.”

According to Teeselink, the Steering Committee felt Fontanna was a natural choice for the honor.

One committee member described Fontanna as “a true light in this world. While she is fighting her own battle, she is helping others fight theirs through Relay. We are lucky to have her.” Another committee member said “100 Energizer bunnies live in Lisa’s body. She is always going and always doing something amazing.”

“A tireless warrior” who “is the inspiration that hope reigns supreme … despite fighting her own battles with cancer, she continues to rise above and beyond for all that have cancer” and whose “passion, energy, drive, and optimism are an inspiration to us all” were ways that other committee members described Fontanna.

Another committee member noted that “Lisa is not only an Honorary Survivor, she is an Honorary Caregiver. She cares for everyone in her midst. She volunteers whenever and wherever there is a need whether it be for Relay For Life, Women of Waconia, or just a person/persons in need. She puts everyone else before herself.”

Since moving to Waconia six years ago from Prescott, Wisconsin, Fontanna has been active in pursuing one of her passions, which is volunteering throughout the community. After her diagnosis, it was that very same community that gave her strength.

“When I was diagnosed, the overall response from the community was phenomenal,” she said. “I thank the Waconia community and fellow Relay committee members for their generous support and having my back.”

The community is welcome to attend the Relay For Life of Waconia on Aug. 15, where Fontanna will deliver her speech during the opening ceremony, which starts at 6:30 p.m. in the Grandstand.


Contact Todd Moen at [email protected]