It may have a different look this year, but the 2020 Heart & Sole Cancer Walk will once again take to the streets to benefit Mitchell-area cancer patients as the annual event returns Friday.

The arrival of COVID-19 has changed the format for the 23rd annual event. Concern about the spread of the new and dangerous respiratory disease have forced the live 5K walk and run to be replaced by a virtual version and a car cruise and parade will be held in downtown Mitchell to allow participants to come together while being able to maintain social distancing protocols.

One aspect that will remain unchanged, however, is the appointment of three honorary co-chairs of the event. The co-chairs traditionally lead the survivor lap of the event and serve as symbols of the multitudes of people who battle against cancer every day. At Friday’s event, they will take part as the leads in the cruising parade.

Their stories are at the same time both unique and common, and provide a small cross-section of the situation they share with millions of others around the country.

Mary Alexander is one of the three honorary co-chairs of this year's Heart and Sole Cancer Walk. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Mary Alexander is one of the three honorary co-chairs of this year's Heart and Sole Cancer Walk. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Mary Alexander

Mary Alexander discovered she had breast cancer somewhat accidentally.

She was helping her mother deal with some health questions, and when doctors recommended her mother have a mammogram, she decided that she would get one, too, since she would be accompanying her mother to the doctor anyway.

“I hadn’t had one in a couple of years, so I made an appointment for both of us,” Alexander, 45, told the Mitchell Republic recently. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think anything would come back positive. My closest relative having cancer was a second cousin on my mother’s side,” Alexander said.

She was diagnosed with grade 2 invasive ductal carcinoma, a hormone-induced breast cancer. She began a six-week process of meeting with doctors, tests, scans, x-rays and counseling leading up to a successful bilateral mastectomy.

During those days, support from her family was crucial to keeping her spirits up and her fighting spirit strong. Her husband Dan attended every doctor appointment with her and provided an anchor when the terminology and weight of the situation became overwhelming.

“My husband went to every appointment with me. You get in those appointments and the terminology swims in your head, but he was able to be the level-headed one and asked what does that mean? That, for me, helped greatly,” Alexander said.

Following surgery, her family was there for her when she was too weak to lift her arms. She gives immense credit to them, her doctors and the fact that she was diagnosed early as reasons she is now cancer-free.

Alexander, who works as the director of financial aid at Dakota Wesleyan University, has a history with the Heart & Sole Cancer Walk, having participated in the past to support other patients and even serving on the assistance board of the organization. Now, as an honorary co-chair of the Heart & Sole Cancer Walk, she hopes her story will help encourage others to get regular cancer screenings. She knows the difference it’s made in her life, and it could also help save the life of the next cancer patient.

She considers herself fortunate, both in the fact that she was diagnosed early and that her treatment has been relatively smooth. Not everyone is as lucky.

“My story is not as traumatic or didn’t have the invasive procedures such as what a young child may go through, or Mark (Vaux) who has had cancer multiple times,” Alexander said. “I think I sailed through it smoothly, but I couldn’t have done that without the people around me, from friends and family to co-workers.”

Mark Vaux is one of the three honorary co-chairs of this year's Heart and Sole Cancer Walk. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Mark Vaux is one of the three honorary co-chairs of this year's Heart and Sole Cancer Walk. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Mark Vaux

Mark Vaux has beaten cancer. Multiple types. Multiple times. And it has definitely opened his eyes to who he is and what is important in his life.

“I learned so much about myself and truly who I am and what’s important in life in the big picture,” said Vaux, who serves as the CEO of the Mitchell Chamber of Commerce. “Those are substantial lessons when you’re faced with a life-changing and a life-threatening situation.”

He didn’t expect to receive the diagnosis of breast cancer, a form of the disease that is rarely detected in men.

“As a guy, you don’t think of it, and unfortunately you hear about it on a regular basis in women. It’s more common for women to have it, but when people ask me or they find out what kind it is, they look at you funny,” Vaux said.

Vaux found out about his cancer after having a glandular lump near one of his nipples examined. What they discovered surprised both him and the doctors who were treating him. It was a combination of skin cancer and breast cancer.

“None of us, the doctors or anybody, ever suspected that there would be breast cancer,” Vaux said.

Vaux, 57, noted about 250,000 women are diagnosed every year with breast cancer while only about 2,000 men find themselves battling the disease. He said, generally, breast cancer has a fairly low mortality rate in women, but it’s nearly 40% in men, likely in part because it often goes undiagnosed until in the later stages of the disease.

He found out two years later that he had prostate cancer, something he said was caught early thanks to the diligence he employed following his earlier cancer battles.

“Guys need to do self-checks and talk to their doctors, and yes, they have to have screenings if they notice anything unusual,” Vaux said.

Vaux is now cancer free, and while he maintains a rigorous regiment of regular checkups and screenings, he tries to do his best to help other patients through the difficult mental challenges that can come with fighting cancer, whether it be one type or three.

“One of the great things that I’ve been able to do through this is be a mentor for newly diagnosed cancer patients and helping them through their situation and being an advocate for them,” Vaux said.

Being a Heart & Sole Cancer Walk honorary co-chair is a chance to bring that message of encouragement to the survivors and those who may face the challenges he faced later down the road.

“It’s an honor to be an advocate and share my story, especially on the rarity and encouraging guys to go get checked,” Vaux said. “It’s about raising awareness and trying to help people, whether it be male or female.”

Parker Fenner is one of the three honorary co-chairs of this year's Heart and Sole Cancer Walk. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Parker Fenner is one of the three honorary co-chairs of this year's Heart and Sole Cancer Walk. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Parker Fenner

Parker Fenner always seemed to have a fever. At least, that’s what the day care provider told Josh and Chelci Fenner about their 3-year-old son Parker in January 2019. She had been doing regular health screenings of her young charges and Parker was often running a temperature.

“Our day care provider is very on top of any signs of illness, and she kept noticing he had fevers. She would text my wife all the time and we’d get it checked out,” said Josh Fenner in a recent interview with the Mitchell Republic. “She was one of the reasons he got diagnosed.”

After many suggestions his ailment could be viral, the Mount Vernon couple took Parker to see their physician assistant Gina Hawkins. Blood work was ordered, and in a short amount of time, Hawkins returned with a doctor who told them they believed Parker had leukemia and he needed to get to Sioux Falls. Now.

Their hunch was correct. Parker had acute lymphobiastic leukemia.

His parents were floored.

“This is something that nobody is ever prepared to hear, no matter how much they prepare you,” Josh said.

Parker undergoes chemotherapy sessions every 12 weeks at Sanford Children’s Hospital in Sioux Falls. His parents are grateful that he has faced these treatments with poise and resilience, which have brought them both better peace of mind.

“He’s done really well,” Josh said. “He takes chemo treatments well and eats and sleeps well. He’s full of energy all day. And (Chelci) and I have come a long way with dealing with it. We just need to enjoy our son and not be worried all the time.”

Josh’s parents live about three hours away and were at their side mere hours after they received the call about their grandson. Chelci’s parents also came up from Texas as soon as they heard. Even people Josh had worked with at past jobs offered their support.

“I had old co-workers reach out and send cards. People you don’t think would remember you or hadn’t been in contact with in years. It’s unbelievable how something so sad brings so many people back together,” Josh said.

Parker is expected to be cruising with his fellow co-chairs at the Heart & Sole Cancer Walk on Friday, and his parents are glad for both their son’s hopeful prognosis and the chance for him to inspire others.

“Our son is doing great, and he’s an example for anybody going through any kind of disease that’s scary, whether it be COVID-19 or cancer. It is doable,” Josh said.