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Lubben tackling cancer play by play

Life changes ever so quickly.

Just ask Larry Lubben.

In one afternoon his whole world was turned upside down when a simple visit to his optometrist for a routine eye exam turned into a diagnosis of choroidal melanoma, an extremely rare form of cancer.

Lubben remembers the afternoon well. It was Wednesday, January 25, and he was undergoing the exam when his optometrist detected something unusual in his left eye. Before Larry knew what was happening, he was on his way to see an ophthalmologist for further testing. I called my wife, Sheila, and she met me there, Larry recalled. The doctor first thought the problem was a detached retina, but soon discovered something much more serious. By 4:30 p.m. they were told Larry had a large tumor in his eye an extremely rare form of cancer that would require treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester right away. They were so kind and very concerned, they called Mayo and were able to get us in the next week, Larry said.

Surprisingly, the diagnosis didnt knock Larry for an immediate loop that was to come later. Everything happened so quickly, we really didnt have time to let it sink in, Larry said. I went in for a routine eye exam and was diagnosed with cancer. I was amazed I didnt fall off the chair, you just dont believe it. I had no symptoms, only a little spot I could see that seemed to be pulsating, but otherwise I had perfect vision. Ironically, if Larry had not gone in for the exam he would have been forced to a week later, when the bulging tumor caused the retina to detach, resulting in both blurred and double vision.

Still reeling from the diagnosis, the first thing Larry and Sheila did was call their children and other family members wanting them to know first. The hardest part was telling his parents, who live in Wheaton, Minn. Larry knew telling his mother would be a real difficult experience emotionally for both of them, so his brother volunteered to tell them.

Larry also wanted to share the news immediately with fellow employees at Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota where he serves as assistant vice president of membership and underwriting. The next day I told my staff and explained what I was up against, Larry said. They couldnt believe how calm I was about it, but I knew I had to be strong and deal with it.

Since choroidal melanoma is a cancer that starts in the eye and then invades other parts of the body, typically the liver and lungs, the next step was additional testing at MeritCare to determine if the cancer had spread. Its a nasty thing and the key is to detect it before it spreads, Larry said. There are studies pertaining to what causes it, but at this point nobody really knows. Toward that end, Larry is presently part of a clinical study to help determine the cause.

Consequently, Larry went from telling his staff, straight to testing at MeritCare undergoing a battery of tests, including a CT scan.

It was during a break in this testing on Friday that the emotion of the moment finally came crashing down. Larry had gone into work that morning and was stopping back at the office for a moment after lunch before heading back to MeritCare. I pulled into the parking lot and all of a sudden it just hit me. I had my quiet little moment of reality, shed some tears, and got it all out of my system. From that point on I was fine.

He returned to MeritCare for the remainder of his tests, finishing up that evening. We left the clinic on Friday night and we didnt get a call from anyone over the weekend, so I figured that was a good thing, Larry said. Much to his relief, he went back in for test results on Monday and was told everything looked clear and really good.

Shortly thereafter, Larry and Sheila were off to Mayo for a week of more rigorous testing before arriving at a treatment plan. Their four children also traveled there to lend much needed support Lia came from Fargo; Matt from Buffalo, Minn.; John from Chicago; and Dave from Portland, Ore.

Larry had been told in advance of the testing that if the tumor was too large to treat, the eye would have to be removed. The good news was the ultrasound revealed a mid-size tumor, 10 millimeters (one-half inch) located in the vascular part of the eye close to the central vision point, and doctors didnt feel it had spread. They told me they thought they could treat it, but the decision was up to me radiation or removal of the eye, Larry said. If I opted for the radiation, my eye could only endure one treatment, and if the radiation didnt shrink the tumor, the eye would still have to be removed. On the other hand, they told me that if the treatment was successful and the tumor did shrink, it would never entirely disappear and I may never have good vision again, with the full effect on my sight unknown for two years.

The treatment would involve a dime-sized disc armed with radiation pellets being sewn to Larrys eye directly over the tumor, capable of automatically releasing the doses. It takes two to three weeks to build the discs, Larry explained. Mayo is the only place that makes them and they have to be built to exact specifications, releasing the most amount of radiation while causing the least amount of damage. He noted there is always some collateral damage because the disc needs to be constructed a little bit larger than the tumor in order to radiate all of the cancer cells, in doing so, destroying some of the good cells as well as surrounding blood vessels.

The family had lunch that afternoon to discuss the options. Some family members thought eye removal might be the best step because the tumor would be removed and it would end the need for any more treatment and suffering in the process.

The ultimate decision was up to Larry. After much thought, I said I think Ill go for the treatment.

His reasoning? Studies that show whatever the choice, the odds are exactly the same of having the cancer return or spread to other parts of the body. Even if I lose all the vision, as long as the eye is there, looks normal, and there is no cancer, it will definitely be worth it.

Then it was back home for a few weeks allowing time for construction of the little radiated disc. When Larry and Sheila returned to Mayo, the disc was attached to the eye, the radiation completed, and the disc removed. He remained in the hospital throughout treatment to prevent any outside contamination.

Coincidentally, it was during this time that Larry met a 41-year-old lady from Minneapolis who was dealing with the same situation. Sheila met her in the family waiting room and introduced her to Larry. There was an instantaneous bonding, Larry said. We were two people going through the same thing we found out during a routine eye exam about the same day, it affected the same eye, and we had the same surgery on the same day. It was so good to have someone to share and talk to that was going through the exact same experience to compare notes. And because of all this, we will probably have a lifelong pen pal friendship.

The treatment was completed in mid-March, Larry is home and back at work, and now its a waiting game.

His odds are good and hes optimistic. If the radiation reduces the tumor, Ill have a 20 percent chance of the cancer returning in the next five years. Everyone is subject to cancer and I cant sit here and worry about it.

In April, he will return to Mayo for a surgical check. Then early this fall, theyll do a complete evaluation to see if the tumor is shrinking in size. If its growing that will be bad news, Larry said, because theyll have to remove the eye. Theyll also continue to check the liver and lung areas on an ongoing basis.

Ironically, in a bid to get healthier, Lubben dropped 100 pounds in 2005. You often wonder how things like this all fall together, Larry said. I decide to get healthy, clearing up blood pressure and triglyceride issues. That happens to be a really good thing and has really helped me with this fight. It was almost like it was meant to be.

Larry and his family have been totally overwhelmed by the fantastic moral and spiritual support from family, friends and co-workers. He said his wife and family are doing just fine. Sheila has had her quiet moments, but she has accepted it. Im going to have this the rest of my life and it just kind of overwhelms you at times, but you have to make the best of it and carry on.

Old neighbor and friend Eric Rogne, from Western State Bank, and fellow West Fargo Exchangite Steve Becher, from Western Insurance, have helped establish a special fund on Larrys behalf, and the Packer Backers have gone out of their way with their show of caring. They have always been so supportive of what I do at the school, Larry said, a reference to his play-by-play telecasts of West Fargo sporting events the last two decades on the public access channel. The people at work are also so great and their many acts of kindness have been so meaningful.

Ive been receiving warm regards from so many people; its just symbolic of the town and the many fine people in the community. Everyone is really caring and it is all so appreciated. I dont think a day has gone by that I havent received a card or an e-mail. The parishioners at Immanuel Lutheran in North Fargo, where we are members, have also extended their support as have those at Community Presbyterian Church in West Fargo, where my son-in-law and daughter attend.

Here Larry mentions another saving grace in his battle to this point, the Caring Bridge Web site, describing it as such a great thing. The site has been a great vehicle for him to keep an ongoing journal for people concerned about him. So many people have been following my progress on the Caring Bridge site, leaving such kind and thoughtful messages. They are always so uplifting and have really helped me get through this. I still update the site every other day. It is such a good way to get the word out to everybody.

Larry also wants to let everyone know it will be business as usual, at least for the moment, with his employment and his sporting event telecasts and, of course, with time spent with his family, in particular, the ten grandchildren. Now that everything is going ok, I want to keep active and busy. Televising games has been part of my life for so long and I enjoy it so much I will continue. I did cut back a little the last two months, normally I do 60 games a year, this year it was 35. Ill be starting up again in September for the football season.

Most of all Larry said he is thankful for the gift of each new day and what it holds in store. My life has changed, but we are finding a way to deal with it. Because of what I am going through, people have been telling me they are going to go in for an eye exam. They are so much more aware and concerned and not taking their eyesight for granted. There is always some good that comes out of everything.

The Caring Bridge Web site for updates is


Larry Lubbens illness has touched many people in the community, but perhaps none more significantly than eight-year-old Ashton Barta, whose mother Wendy Hansen is employed with Larry at Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota.

Ashton has known Larry for several years, because her mother is a commentator with Larry for the West Fargo volleyball games that he videotapes.

Consequently, she noticed a fund-raiser poster for Larry at the West Fargo Dairy Queen a few weeks ago, and set out to help, making her own grab bags, complete with original drawing, piece of gum and pencil that she was going to sell for five cents each. She completed her labor of love at 7:30 p.m., March 8, and was trying to set up her shop with a cardboard table on the curb when her mother came back from track practice, which she coaches.

Wendy told her it was too dark and there was not enough traffic. A dejected Ashton replied, Mom, you let me waste two days of my life making these bags, and now you arent even going to let me sell them to do something good for Larry?

The next day, Wendy told co-worker Brenda Geist she felt like a bad mom for refusing Ashtons request. Brenda asked Wendy to bring the bags to work because she wanted to buy one. Wendy did, and other employees eagerly purchased the other ten bags. Wendy matched the $11 that Ashton raised. I was happy to let Ashton know her hard work paid off, Wendy said.

March 13 marked Larrys first day back at work following treatment at Mayo. Wendy took Ashton out of school so she could present Larry with the money she raised.

Totally surprised, Larry said It is one of the sweetest things that anybodys ever done.

Wendy said that her daughter felt so good about what she had done that on her way back to school she said she would be going home to make more bags that night. I think Ashton felt like a celebrity for the day. The Underwriting Department at Noridian had the pictures she had drawn on display and greeted her with much warmth and praise. She will remember this day for a long time. Her hard work had paid off, literally.

As for Wendy, she was overwhelmed completely. I was so proud of Ashton, but more importantly, to see her proud of herself took my breath away, Wendy said. She has such a big heart.

Ashton's grandfather said it best one day when he said, Ashton just makes this world right, Wendy added. Larry has always given so much of himself. How wonderful for someone so innocent to be giving back to him. Larry seems to find a special place in everyone's heart. He certainly has captured Ashton's. He is truly a gift to us all.