Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Getting through cancer, together

Jodi Summit
Posted 3/21/19

REGIONAL- Justin Grotberg was there three years ago last month when his mother, Christina Hujanen, got the incredible news from doctors at the Mayo Clinic. She had beaten one of the toughest and most …

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Getting through cancer, together

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REGIONAL- Justin Grotberg was there three years ago last month when his mother, Christina Hujanen, got the incredible news from doctors at the Mayo Clinic. She had beaten one of the toughest and most aggressive forms of cancer.

Christina had been diagnosed in late 2015 with stage-four esophageal and stomach cancer and doctors said her chances of survival were slim. Justin stayed with his mother for months in Rochester, helping to comfort her through chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and subsequent surgery and reconstruction of her esophagus and stomach. Later, when the doctors offered the good news, Justin said it came like a wave of relief. 

“We feel like we’ve gotten a second chance with mom,” he said, following the amazing news. Justin says the whole experience was more than he could have ever imagined. “It definitely caught me off-guard, how much of a miracle this has been.”

Now the family is hoping for a second miracle.

Justin, who is 29, has had lingering issues with severe headaches and some seizures over the past several years and was diagnosed earlier this year with an aggressive brain tumor that is nearly always fatal. So now the family’s life is once again revolving around treatment at the Mayo Clinic.

Surgery determined that Justin’s cancerous tumor (a high grade-two astrocytoma glioma) is rare type of cancer that requires very aggressive treatment. Justin has already had surgery that removed part, but not all, of the tumor last month, and he is back at the Mayo for radiation and chemotherapy, which is expected to take about seven weeks.

This type of tumor is not curable and his doctors expect it to grow back. The radiation and chemotherapy, if successful, will only slow this process, not stop it. Doctors are concerned because these types of tumors tend to grow back quickly and spread to other parts of the brain and brain stem, which can cause permanent neurological damage such as blindness, deafness, or paralysis.

“This is all very scary and doesn’t seem like it is really happening,” said Christina. “We really appreciate all the well wishes, thoughts and prayers.” She credited the support from her family and friends as one of the most important parts of her own journey with cancer. “I know what’s gotten me through this is all the support I’ve gotten from all over the world,” she said back in 2016. “I knew I had family and friends counting on me to get through this. That’s what kept me strong.”

Now she is hoping that friends and family will show the same level of support for Justin.

Justin’s diagnosis has Christina thinking again about her own experience. Three years after her treatment, Christina is still cancer free, but does have lingering effects from the chemotherapy and radiation that have made it impossible for her to go back to work. What she has been doing the past three years is taking care of her sons, all four of them.

“When I was diagnosed the doctors gave me less than six months to live, she said. “Then I survived, and people said there must be a reason.” With tears in her eyes, Christina wondered if this was the reason— that she would be there to help her son through his own cancer treatment.

“It’s just so sad,” she said. “You never want to see any of your kids go through this.”

With their shared experience from her treatment, Christina is hoping that she and Justin can navigate, together, through the coming months of his therapy.

“I know what emotions he will go through,” she said. “And he was there so he understands a lot of it already. I keep telling him we will get through this together.”

Justin has three brothers. Mark Grotberg, a year younger, has always been Justin’s closest friend. The two younger brothers, Ryan and Logan Hujanen, are students at Virginia High School, and will stay with their father while Christina is at Mayo with Justin. All three brothers, his father, and his mother’s boyfriend all came down for his initial surgery, and all plan on visiting as often as possible.

Justin, who has been suffering from horrific headaches for many months, has recently gotten relief from some new medication. The last few days before heading back to Mayo he has been able to enjoy time with his three brothers, family, and friends.

Though not looking forward to this trip back to Mayo, Justin does have some goals for his treatment.

“I was my mom’s personal caregiver for almost a year while she was at Mayo,” he said. “I wheeled her back and forth to treatments every day.”

Justin said he is hoping to be able to walk himself to and from his appointments, though he knows that radiation can make him very tired.

He is also planning to keep his sense of humor and hopes to be able to keep joking with his doctors and nurses through his treatment. He said he was joking with his surgeon as he was wheeled into the operating room last month.

“It was really scary in there with all the instruments, and so bright,” he said, “but I looked around and saw my surgeon and got him to laugh.” Justin said he hopes that by keeping a positive attitude, it will help his care team have an extra incentive to keep him on track to recovery.

“No one fights alone,” he said, mirroring the motto for his type of brain cancer.

Justin and Christina will be staying at a hotel near the hospital the first week in Rochester, and then will move to Hope Lodge (as soon as a room opens up) for the rest of Justin’s treatment. The Hope Lodge is operated by the American Cancer Society and offers a safe, home-like environment for cancer patients and their caregivers while undergoing treatment. This will be their second long-term stay at Hope Lodge.

Justin will begin radiation treatment on March 21. He will have treatments, which each take at least an hour, five days a week. Last week Justin was fitted with a special mask to wear during the treatments. The mask totally encloses his face and head, except for two small breathing holes for his nostrils.

Justin, who does not like being in enclosed spaces on a good day, said the mask fitting was rather scary.

“It was like every one of my nightmares combined into one,” he said. “But I stayed strong and didn’t complain. I guess I can handle this.”

There is an account set up for Justin at the three branches of the Embarrass-Vermillion Credit Union, as well as online at gofundme.com (search for Justin Grotberg). Funds donated will be used for expenses while undergoing treatment. While the stay at Hope Lodge is free, the family must cover the costs of the initial hotel stay, food, and transportation costs.

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