Skip to main content

Rehabilitation services: Cancer

Skip section navigation

Cancer patient stories

Patient stories

Matthew Barron

An active approach to recovery

Matthew Barron of Hastings takes an active approach to recovery after a staph infection and multi-organ failure during treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia resulted in lost sensory and motor function to his legs.



Abby Dwyer

An "I can beat this" attitude

Abby's optimism and determination has helped her through chemotherapy, surgeries and rehabilitation. Now she's back in school and she has competed in a triathlon.




Marlis Scholljegerdes

Humor and Perseverance

Cancer and stroke survivor Marlis Scholljegerdes has inspired other patients with her empathy, her work ethic, and the ability to laugh at herself and keep at a task when at first she doesn’t succeed.



Marlene Miller

Attitude of gratitude

Cancer survivor Marlene Miller's positive attitude has enabled her to experience joy in her journey through cancer diagnosis, surgery, treatment and rehabilitation. Yes, that's right, "joy" is the word she uses.

Nancy Vonruden

Vonruden experienced at least four separate occurrences of cancer during a 20-year period. In spite of the debilitating effects of surgeries and treatments, she worked diligently to regain lost ground and maintain the highest possible level of function.

Abby Dwyer

Abby Dwyer

2013 Inspiration award winner Abby Dwyer sports an "I can beat this" attitude

Abby Dwyer's optimistic attitude takes her from chemotherapy to a triathlon

Abby Dwyer of Ramsey, Minnesota was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia when she was 11 years old. Her chemotherapy treatments from 2009-2012 caused her to miss so much school that she was home schooled by tutors. She had physical therapy at Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis and was also evaluated at Mayo Clinic for medical complications. Although her leukemia was under control, Dwyer had a lot of joint damage and osteonecrosis of her knees and ankles. Pain caused her much difficulty in standing and walking, and she needed orthotic devices to help her ankle weakness and foot drop.

Dwyer’s physician recommended bilateral total knee arthroplasties and suggested that she undergo aggressive rehab prior to the surgeries to strengthen her legs and regain lower extremity range of motion. Her family chose Courage Kenny Sports & Physical Therapy – Elk River for this therapy, as the location was convenient to their home.

At the Elk River site, Dwyer’s therapists, Monica Heinen, PT, CLT-LANA, STAR/C and Angie Dee-Ellingson, MPT, CLT-LANA, STAR/C, said that Dwyer never gave up. She worked hard in rehab for several months, underwent the surgeries, then returned for several more months of therapy after the surgeries. She accepted the disheartening fact that she wouldn’t grow much taller because the knee replacements affected the growth plates in her legs. Her “I’m going to beat this” attitude and optimism have served as an inspiration to other children who are dealing with the challenges of cancer.

Dwyer was discharged from physical therapy this past summer with nearly full range of motion, good strength and function, and less pain. She is now back in school. Heinen and Dee-Ellingson said that Dwyer keeps in contact with the staff; she recently let them know that she participated in a Miracle for Mitch Children’s Triathlon, which included walking, riding and swimming.

Matthew Barron

Matthew Barron

2013 Inspiration award winner Matthew Barron of Hastings takes an active approach to recovery after a staph infection and multi-organ failure during treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia resulted in lost sensory and motor function to his legs.

Mathew Barron takes an active approach to recovery

Matthew Barron of Hastings, Minnesota was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia when he was 17. Nearing the end of chemotherapy treatment in the spring of 2012, he required hospitalization for staph infection and multi-organ failure. He lost sensory and motor function in his lower extremities, which electromyography showed to be caused by a lumbosacral plexopathy.

Barron began his rehabilitation in the Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute – Abbott Northwestern Hospital inpatient unit, working tirelessly to adapt to his new lifestyle, to perform daily cares and gain independence using a wheelchair. He then transitioned to outpatient physical therapy at Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute – River Falls in River Falls, Wisconsin.

“When Matt began, he had clear optimism and a determined work ethic to regain as much mobility and lower extremity strength as possible,” said Nicholas Maiers, PT, Barron’s therapist at River Falls. Barron’s accomplishments over the next few months included strengthening in his hips, quadriceps and hamstrings. Soon he was using a standing frame and tolerating upright weight bearing.

Next Barron began standing and walking, using bilateral knee-ankle orthotic devices and working out in the pool as well. His improvements amazed the staff. “As a clinician it has been thrilling to get the opportunity to work with this young man and see firsthand the immediate rewards of hard work,” said Maiers.

Barron returned to school in the fall of 2012, using a wheelchair, but in the fall of 2013, he began the school year without a wheelchair – walking with only rigid bilateral ankle-foot orthoses.

Barron has a very supportive family that took active roles in his recovery and expressed awe at his incredible accomplishments. He also gained the total admiration of both staff and clients at the River Falls site, while maintaining a humble attitude. Wanting to give back and help others, he donated his standing frame to Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute, so other patients can benefit from it.

He has become a champion on issues affecting people with disabilities, serving as a role model and sharing his story with his community. Maiers summed up by saying “Matt’s message will serve to not only educate and inspire, but will provide an engine to help spread awareness regarding the challenges faced by those with disabilities.”

Marlis Scholljegerdes

Marlis Scholljegerdes

2013 Inspiration award winner Marlis Scholljegerdes of Waseca experienced several milestones while dealing with cancer, including the birth of a granddaughter.

Marlis Scholljegerdes laughs at herself and perseveres

Marlis Scholljegerdes of Waseca, Minnesota has had many challenges to overcome. She has been a cancer survivor since 1988; and in the spring of 2012, she had a stroke that affected her right (dominant) arm and leg. She was hospitalized in the inpatient unit at Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute – Abbott Northwestern Hospital and then referred to outpatient therapy close to home at Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute – Owatonna.

Scholljegerdes received physical, occupational and speech therapy, making excellent progress over a period of eight months. Then another setback occurred in February 2013, and she was readmitted to the Institute at Abbott Northwestern, unable to walk, grasp objects or use more than one or two words at a time. Once again, she returned to outpatient therapy in Owatonna and made great strides in her level of function. By May, she could climb stairs with supervision, manage her daily cares, and begin to read and write again.

Unfortunately, in July 2013, a fall put Scholljegerdes back in the hospital, where she needed a craniotomy. Again, she returned to outpatient therapy in Owatonna and worked hard to regain the ability to walk, speak, read, take care of herself and perform household chores. She understandably struggled with fear, stress and sadness, as she dealt with the consequences of her physical limitations and the upheaval in her life.

Scholljegerdes’ supportive family, including husband Doug, has been by side throughout her successes and setbacks. She experienced several milestones while hospitalized or in outpatient therapy, including her 60th birthday, a wedding anniversary, and the birth of a granddaughter.

According to her team of therapists in Owatonna – Denise Rokke, OTR, Sheryl Mans, PT, Ruth Nolte, PT and Caitlin Klukas, SLP – Scholljegerdes showed remarkable resilience and a firm determination to get herself to the next level, whatever that was at any point in time.

The therapy staff at Owatonna has been deeply impressed by Scholljegerdes’ positive attitude and sense of humor. She has inspired other patients with her empathy, her work ethic, and the ability to laugh at herself and keep at a task when at first she doesn’t succeed.

Marlene Miller's attitude of gratitude

Cancer rehab patient Marlene Miller talks with Amelia Svenningsen, MSPT while walking on a treadmill.

Marlene Miller talks with Amelia Svenningsen, MSPT, CLT while walking on a treadmill.

Cancer survivor finds joy in the journey

Marlene Miller is a cancer survivor with a positive attitude that has enabled her to experience joy in her journey through cancer diagnosis, surgery, treatment and rehabilitation. Yes, that's right, "joy" is the word she used in describing her experience.

"Nobody would wish to get cancer," says Miller, a two-time cancer survivor, "but I appreciate all the things that happened on my journey. I focused on the 'joy of the journey' – all the people I met and the activities I became involved in that I wouldn't have otherwise."

Miller's journey began in May 2005 with a diagnosis of Stage 3 endometrial cancer. Following surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, a PET scan in December 2006 revealed cancerous lymph nodes although a recent mammogram had revealed nothing of concern.

Thus began her treatment for breast cancer February 2007, which included a bilateral mastectomy, followed by more chemo and radiation. And in between the two bouts with cancer, Miller's husband passed away.

Yet, despite her personal ordeals, Miller stayed focused on the positives. "I've been blessed with excellent medical care," she said. "I also am thankful for all of the people who went before me and participated in clinical trials. Because of them, there are such great advancements in cancer treatment today."

"As a result of my breast cancer treatment, I had lymphedema and other side effects," said Miller, "but I didn't get to Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute (SKRI) for cancer rehab right away. I sure wish I had – and I advise others to do so!"

Sister Kenny's STAR (Survivorship Training and Rehabilitation Program) Program® helped Miller significantly. "The STAR Program at Sister Kenny is wonderful," said Miller.

Marlene Miller posing in front of Capitol building in Washington, DC with group from the National Breast Cancer Coalition.

In May 2012, Miller traveled to Washington, DC with the Minnesota contingency of the National Breast Cancer Coalition (NBCC).

She sees physiatrist Nancy Hutchison, MD several times a year and gets lymphedema treatment as needed at Sister Kenny Sports & Physical Therapy Center - Minneapolis. Her physical therapist has provided home exercises that really help. And Miller exercises regularly at Lifetime Fitness.

Her therapy also helps with balance issues and dealing with side effects of medication, including joint aches and fatigue. "I now have a quality of life I would not have had without Sister Kenny," Miller added.

Miller had only positive things to say about her physicians at Minnesota Oncology, Virginia Piper Cancer Institute of Abbott Northwestern Hospital, and SKRI. However, she said that it is "critical to be your own advocate. Doctors sometimes focus only on the body part(s) of their specialty, but it is essential to look at the whole person."

Miller also believes in "paying it forward" by becoming involved and making a difference in the lives of others. She currently serves on an advisory panel for a Sister Kenny Research Center project on the effects of outpatient cancer rehabilitation. She has also participated in clinical studies on fatigue and weight control.

In May 2012, Miller traveled to Washington, DC with the Minnesota contingency of the National Breast Cancer Coalition (NBCC), where they lobbied Minnesota legislators to support 2013 funding of key NBCC initiatives; specifically, The Breast Cancer Deadline 2020, which aims to have a vaccine to prevent breast cancer by the year 2020.

Miller is also active in the Minnesota chapter of the Breast Cancer Awareness Association, which hosts an annual educational conference for breast cancer survivors and the medical community and raises funds for other events to educate and enhance the quality of life for cancer survivors.

And Miller does all of this while continuing to work at her human resources job three days a week.

Miller strongly advises cancer survivors to learn as much as they can. She herself has attended the University of Minnesota Mini Medical School, where she gained valuable knowledge about breast cancer research. She also recommends joining a support group.

She urges survivors to "rejoice each day in being able to flip over the date on a daily calendar. There is so much in life to be grateful for," she added. She's grateful to be alive to enjoy her family, which includes her daughter, son-in-law, 2-year-old grandson and infant granddaughter.

Asked if she had any further advice for cancer survivors, she was quick to reply, "Pay attention to your inner spirit; be honest with yourself; serve as your own advocate; find a doctor who is willing to let you be a 'partner' in your own care; eat well; exercise; learn new things; get involved and make a difference. Be grateful for the present and have an attitude of gratitude."


Source: Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute
Reviewed by: Lori Froehling, PT, MS, Cert MDT, director of therapies, Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute
First Published: 05/14/2012
Last Reviewed: 05/14/2012

Nancy Vonruden

Nancy Vonruden experienced at least four separate occurrences of cancer during a 20-year period. In spite of the debilitating effects of surgeries and treatments, she worked diligently to regain lost ground and maintain the highest possible level of function.

2012 Inspiration Award winner

Each year, Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute recognizes people who are an inspiration to their fellow patients, families, caregivers and to all who hear their stories.

Meet all the 2012 Inspiration Award winners here.

She came to SKRI – Owatonna in November 2010, after having had surgery to remove numerous lymph nodes and her right iliac vein; and treatment for tumors in her right lung.

She had developed lymphedema, for which she wore compression garments. Right femoral nerve-associated muscle weakness made gait and stair climbing difficult, especially problematic because Vonruden and her husband live in a multi-level home. Her right knee would give out at times on the stairs, resulting in occasional falls.

When Vonruden arrived for her first appointment, she was using a rolling walker and a splint to prevent her right knee from giving way. Her therapists – Sheryl Mans, PT, Christy Christianson, PTA, and Gina Boyd, PTA – report that Vonruden worked hard in therapy; and by early 2011, she was walking without the walker or splint. She was able to work full time, navigate her multi-level home, and have mobility in her community.

However, by mid-2011, a recurrence of the tumors and their subsequent ablation/removal resulted in recurrence of a buckling right knee, balance problems, stair climbing challenges, and the need to use the knee splint and a cane for ambulation.

At the end of 2011, Vonruden returned to physical therapy to work again on strengthening and gait. She progressed well, despite some additional setbacks that caused a brief hiatus in her therapy.

With hard work and determination, she was subsequently discharged from physical therapy in spring 2012, able to walk without the brace and using a single-ended cane. She resumed her life and work with confidence, while continuing to do strengthening exercises at home and in the fitness center at her place of employment.

Vonruden always maintained a positive, optimistic attitude despite all of her surgeries, treatments and therapies. Arriving for therapy most days at 7 a.m. before going to her full-time job, she rarely missed a session. Her therapists say that she was always pleasant and extremely motivated. She worked through her weakness and pain and always asked her therapists to challenge her further.

Vonruden's diligence and persistence, combined with her consistently positive attitude, have been a source of inspiration to her therapists and to all who know her. She continues to challenge herself to achieve new personal goals.

Currently, she is planning the adventures of zip-lining and white-water rafting. Now that's surely an inspiration to us all!