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Taking a break from cancer

David and Karrie Kellenbenz and their young son, Dawson, of Gilby, N.D., recently left for an all-expenses-paid dream vacation in Florida, where they're making memories to last a lifetime.

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David and Karrie Kellenbenz and son, Dawson, are taking a break from cancer with an all-expense paid trip to Florida covered by the Jack and Jill Foundation. David Kellenbenz was diagnosed with late stage metastatic melanoma last year. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

David and Karrie Kellenbenz and their young son, Dawson, of Gilby, N.D., recently left for an all-expenses-paid dream vacation in Florida, where they're making memories to last a lifetime. In Orlando, they're staying several days at the Ritz-Carlton hotel and exploring SeaWorld and Legoland. The family's trip is being covered by the Jack and Jill Late Stage Cancer Foundation, which is devoted to giving children, who are facing the possible loss of a parent, an experience focused on fun, not cancer. "It should be pretty wonderful," David Kellenbenz, 42, who was diagnosed with late-stage metastatic melanoma last year, said before the trip.
"This trip really means the world to me and our family - just the break from cancer, to get away from it all and enjoy each other. ... We're not going to think about cancer; we're not going to talk about cancer." His wife learned of the foundation and its mission from an online melanoma support group, and they approached his oncologist, who helped them submit an application. "People in this area have heard of Make-a-Wish, but not the Jack and Jill Foundation," she said. "It's a blessing. It's really a blessing." The couple would like more people to become aware of it. "Hopefully, others will be able to benefit from it," Kellenbenz said. The foundation was inspired by the real-life story of Jill and Jon Albert. During Jill's fight with Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, they and their two young children realized the disease was not just attacking Jill's body but was affecting the entire family, according to the JAJF website. The Alberts knew strong memories of special times together would be their children's greatest inheritance. They created the foundation to treat families with experiences, giving children and their parents, who are fighting late-stage cancer, a chance to create indispensable memories as a family. The Kellenbenz family is one of two local families selected by the foundation to receive expenses-paid vacations. Matthew Vollmer, Grand Forks, and his family recently returned from their vacation in California. [[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2418718","attributes":{"alt":"David, Karrie and Dawson Kellenbenz are looking forward to a trip to Florida to get a break from cancer. photo by Eric Hylden","class":"media-image","height":"340","title":"","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"480"}}]] "They want doctors to prescribe this (to patients)," Holly Undlin, Vollmer's fiancee, said of the foundation. The foundation has helped northern Minnesota families from Nisswa, Frazee, Pequot Lakes and Brainerd and North Dakota families living in Grand Forks, Gilby and Fargo. They are among the nearly 1,100 families to receive vacations in the organization's 10 years of operation. "These children and families together deserve a timeout to experience - to feel, to capture positive, fun time together and lasting memories while they can," Jon Albert said. "Life does not end with a diagnosis." 'It'll be wonderful' Kellenbenz was "touched" when he and his family found out they'd been selected, he said. "It was pretty emotional." "(The vacation) will be busy, but it'll be wonderful," he said. "We're looking forward to it, after all we've been through." Kellenbenz has been battling cancer since the first sign of it appeared as a mole on his chest in the fall of 2010. His wife told him he should have it checked. "At first, I kind of blew it off, not thinking anything of it really," he said. But after a doctor's examination and a biopsy was performed, he was told it was malignant melanoma, "the deadliest of skin cancers." There's a popular misconception that melanoma "is just skin cancer," he said. "It's so much more. You really have to watch your skin." Initial surgeries and other treatments were followed by close monitoring and scans which showed no evidence of melanoma for a few years. "We pretty much forgot about melanoma returning," he said. Last July, Kellenbenz started to develop a cough. He was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic melanoma in his lungs, abdomen and neck. He began treatment in August. Because one of the tumors is near his heart, he cannot have surgery; he's receiving chemotherapy and immunotherapy. Emotional roller coaster "A cancer diagnosis is very tough on caregivers - my wife has been wonderful," Kellenbenz said. "They have to face the potential for losing us. It's an emotional roller coaster. Keeping a good attitude is important." Dawson knows his daddy is sick, he said. "We've talked to him some about it. We tell him the doctors are going to help me get better. There's only so much a 4½-year-old can process. "We try to keep things as normal as possible." In Florida, Kellenbenz is eager to watch his son play ... "and the smiles," he said. "If he's happy, it makes Karrie and I happy." Added to that, being able to take a vacation free of financial strain "is a big help, what with medical bills." He is focused on "making good memories with Karrie and Dawson," he said. "If I pass away, they will have those memories forever." The foundation provides each family a leather-bound family photo album and family portrait as keepsakes of their "WOW! Experience," a name it trademarked. And he feels up to the trip. "I'm lucky. I've been able to continue fairly normal activity," said Kellenbenz, who works full time as a meteorologist in Grand Forks. "I'm a very positive person overall," he said, "(but) I do have private times when it's tough." "I'm going to do everything I can to fight (the cancer), to find that treatment that'll work. I pray to God my body responds to it. I'll never give up; I'm a very determined person." He is philosophical about the challenge. "If you get a cancer diagnosis, you can roll over and curl up in a ball and melt away," he said. "Or, you can take an active role in treatment." California memories Earlier this month, Vollmer, 43, and his family visited SeaWorld, Balboa Park, San Diego Zoo and Coronado Island at San Diego, courtesy of the Jack and Jill Foundation. For the past year, Vollmer has been battling esophageal cancer. After an initial surgery and hospitalization, his treatment has included chemotherapy and radiation. Because a tumor blocks his esophagus, he cannot eat and has been on a feeding tube since March 23, 2015. "It's been rather grueling on him," fiancee Undlin said. When Vollmer got sick, she quit her job to take care of him. She is studying online to earn a social work degree at UND. They took the trip to California with their 1-year-old son, Finn, and Vollmer's three daughters from a previous marriage - Matilyn, 9, and twins Emma and Maggie, 6 - who live in Minneapolis. "(In San Diego) we were treated like royalty," Undlin said. The foundation arranged for a wheelchair at the airport and transportation between their hotel and their destinations. "They took care of everything - flights, meals, (admission to) the theme parks," she said. "They decorated the hotel room and had personalized bags for each of the kids. They were beyond amazing. It's hard to put into words." It was the family's first visit to the ocean, she said. "It was everything we could have dreamed of and then some." At each location, they were given behind-the-scenes tours, a scooter to conserve Vollmer's energy and front-of-the-line access to the rides at Legoland. The vacation was meaningful for Vollmer. "It was very important to have my children all together in one spot and just be with them and not have to worry about cancer," he said. "I think my daughters cherished the time they spent with their brother, and cherished the time they spent with me." The family took "a lot of pictures and have memories of happy times, with lots of laughs and giggles and smiles and (a) good vibe," he said. Undlin said it was important for the children to see their father "not feeling sick all the time - to see Dad can still do some things with you and have those memories." "We really don't know how long we have," Undlin said. "Finn may not remember him, so (later on) I can show these pictures to him and talk about his father and these happy times." Experience boosts 'urge to fight' Vollmer and Kellenbenz are the first patients Dr. Anil Potti, an oncologist with the Cancer Center of North Dakota in Grand Forks, has recommended to the foundation. "We're a smaller cancer center, so we we don't have many younger patients with advanced-stage disease," he said. He was eager to help them with their applications to receive a donated trip. "(Cancer patients) are in the fight of their lives. It's a fight, many days, they think they're going to lose," Potti said. A vacation with their families "gives them a much-needed emotional boost - that urge to fight. They think, 'Maybe we can do this next year.' "Looking forward to some special event gives them an emotional boost, emotional strength. The impact is immeasurable. It's hard to put into words. "Even if things don't work out, at least they can say, 'We did this for our children,' " he said. "I truly believe positive things happen to positive thinkers. ... If you have a positive attitude and are in the right hands, that's the best we can do." The Vollmer family strives to keep an upbeat attitude. "When you have a 1-year-old running around the house, it's hard not to smile," Undlin said. "He lifts us up every day, and he doesn't even know it." "I try to stay on the positive - one day at a time," Vollmer said. "I feel blessed that I have the time I've been given."David and Karrie Kellenbenz and their young son, Dawson, of Gilby, N.D., recently left for an all-expenses-paid dream vacation in Florida, where they're making memories to last a lifetime. In Orlando, they're staying several days at the Ritz-Carlton hotel and exploring SeaWorld and Legoland. The family's trip is being covered by the Jack and Jill Late Stage Cancer Foundation, which is devoted to giving children, who are facing the possible loss of a parent, an experience focused on fun, not cancer. "It should be pretty wonderful," David Kellenbenz, 42, who was diagnosed with late-stage metastatic melanoma last year, said before the trip. [[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2418717","attributes":{"alt":"David Kellenbenz shares a moment with their son, Dawson. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald","class":"media-image","height":"480","title":"","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"320"}}]] "This trip really means the world to me and our family - just the break from cancer, to get away from it all and enjoy each other. ... We're not going to think about cancer; we're not going to talk about cancer." His wife learned of the foundation and its mission from an online melanoma support group, and they approached his oncologist, who helped them submit an application. "People in this area have heard of Make-a-Wish, but not the Jack and Jill Foundation," she said. "It's a blessing. It's really a blessing." The couple would like more people to become aware of it. "Hopefully, others will be able to benefit from it," Kellenbenz said. The foundation was inspired by the real-life story of Jill and Jon Albert. During Jill's fight with Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, they and their two young children realized the disease was not just attacking Jill's body but was affecting the entire family, according to the JAJF website. The Alberts knew strong memories of special times together would be their children's greatest inheritance. They created the foundation to treat families with experiences, giving children and their parents, who are fighting late-stage cancer, a chance to create indispensable memories as a family. The Kellenbenz family is one of two local families selected by the foundation to receive expenses-paid vacations. Matthew Vollmer, Grand Forks, and his family recently returned from their vacation in California.
"They want doctors to prescribe this (to patients)," Holly Undlin, Vollmer's fiancee, said of the foundation. The foundation has helped northern Minnesota families from Nisswa, Frazee, Pequot Lakes and Brainerd and North Dakota families living in Grand Forks, Gilby and Fargo. They are among the nearly 1,100 families to receive vacations in the organization's 10 years of operation. "These children and families together deserve a timeout to experience - to feel, to capture positive, fun time together and lasting memories while they can," Jon Albert said. "Life does not end with a diagnosis." 'It'll be wonderful' Kellenbenz was "touched" when he and his family found out they'd been selected, he said. "It was pretty emotional." "(The vacation) will be busy, but it'll be wonderful," he said. "We're looking forward to it, after all we've been through." Kellenbenz has been battling cancer since the first sign of it appeared as a mole on his chest in the fall of 2010. His wife told him he should have it checked. "At first, I kind of blew it off, not thinking anything of it really," he said. But after a doctor's examination and a biopsy was performed, he was told it was malignant melanoma, "the deadliest of skin cancers." There's a popular misconception that melanoma "is just skin cancer," he said. "It's so much more. You really have to watch your skin." Initial surgeries and other treatments were followed by close monitoring and scans which showed no evidence of melanoma for a few years. "We pretty much forgot about melanoma returning," he said. Last July, Kellenbenz started to develop a cough. He was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic melanoma in his lungs, abdomen and neck. He began treatment in August. Because one of the tumors is near his heart, he cannot have surgery; he's receiving chemotherapy and immunotherapy. Emotional roller coaster "A cancer diagnosis is very tough on caregivers - my wife has been wonderful," Kellenbenz said. "They have to face the potential for losing us. It's an emotional roller coaster. Keeping a good attitude is important." Dawson knows his daddy is sick, he said. "We've talked to him some about it. We tell him the doctors are going to help me get better. There's only so much a 4½-year-old can process. "We try to keep things as normal as possible." In Florida, Kellenbenz is eager to watch his son play ... "and the smiles," he said. "If he's happy, it makes Karrie and I happy." Added to that, being able to take a vacation free of financial strain "is a big help, what with medical bills." He is focused on "making good memories with Karrie and Dawson," he said. "If I pass away, they will have those memories forever." The foundation provides each family a leather-bound family photo album and family portrait as keepsakes of their "WOW! Experience," a name it trademarked. And he feels up to the trip. "I'm lucky. I've been able to continue fairly normal activity," said Kellenbenz, who works full time as a meteorologist in Grand Forks. "I'm a very positive person overall," he said, "(but) I do have private times when it's tough." "I'm going to do everything I can to fight (the cancer), to find that treatment that'll work. I pray to God my body responds to it. I'll never give up; I'm a very determined person." He is philosophical about the challenge. "If you get a cancer diagnosis, you can roll over and curl up in a ball and melt away," he said. "Or, you can take an active role in treatment." California memories Earlier this month, Vollmer, 43, and his family visited SeaWorld, Balboa Park, San Diego Zoo and Coronado Island at San Diego, courtesy of the Jack and Jill Foundation. For the past year, Vollmer has been battling esophageal cancer. After an initial surgery and hospitalization, his treatment has included chemotherapy and radiation. Because a tumor blocks his esophagus, he cannot eat and has been on a feeding tube since March 23, 2015. "It's been rather grueling on him," fiancee Undlin said. When Vollmer got sick, she quit her job to take care of him. She is studying online to earn a social work degree at UND. They took the trip to California with their 1-year-old son, Finn, and Vollmer's three daughters from a previous marriage - Matilyn, 9, and twins Emma and Maggie, 6 - who live in Minneapolis. "(In San Diego) we were treated like royalty," Undlin said. The foundation arranged for a wheelchair at the airport and transportation between their hotel and their destinations. "They took care of everything - flights, meals, (admission to) the theme parks," she said. "They decorated the hotel room and had personalized bags for each of the kids. They were beyond amazing. It's hard to put into words." It was the family's first visit to the ocean, she said. "It was everything we could have dreamed of and then some." At each location, they were given behind-the-scenes tours, a scooter to conserve Vollmer's energy and front-of-the-line access to the rides at Legoland. The vacation was meaningful for Vollmer. "It was very important to have my children all together in one spot and just be with them and not have to worry about cancer," he said. "I think my daughters cherished the time they spent with their brother, and cherished the time they spent with me." The family took "a lot of pictures and have memories of happy times, with lots of laughs and giggles and smiles and (a) good vibe," he said. Undlin said it was important for the children to see their father "not feeling sick all the time - to see Dad can still do some things with you and have those memories." "We really don't know how long we have," Undlin said. "Finn may not remember him, so (later on) I can show these pictures to him and talk about his father and these happy times." Experience boosts 'urge to fight' Vollmer and Kellenbenz are the first patients Dr. Anil Potti, an oncologist with the Cancer Center of North Dakota in Grand Forks, has recommended to the foundation. "We're a smaller cancer center, so we we don't have many younger patients with advanced-stage disease," he said. He was eager to help them with their applications to receive a donated trip. "(Cancer patients) are in the fight of their lives. It's a fight, many days, they think they're going to lose," Potti said. A vacation with their families "gives them a much-needed emotional boost - that urge to fight. They think, 'Maybe we can do this next year.' "Looking forward to some special event gives them an emotional boost, emotional strength. The impact is immeasurable. It's hard to put into words. "Even if things don't work out, at least they can say, 'We did this for our children,' " he said. "I truly believe positive things happen to positive thinkers. ... If you have a positive attitude and are in the right hands, that's the best we can do." The Vollmer family strives to keep an upbeat attitude. "When you have a 1-year-old running around the house, it's hard not to smile," Undlin said. "He lifts us up every day, and he doesn't even know it." "I try to stay on the positive - one day at a time," Vollmer said. "I feel blessed that I have the time I've been given."David and Karrie Kellenbenz and their young son, Dawson, of Gilby, N.D., recently left for an all-expenses-paid dream vacation in Florida, where they're making memories to last a lifetime.In Orlando, they're staying several days at the Ritz-Carlton hotel and exploring SeaWorld and Legoland.The family's trip is being covered by the Jack and Jill Late Stage Cancer Foundation, which is devoted to giving children, who are facing the possible loss of a parent, an experience focused on fun, not cancer."It should be pretty wonderful," David Kellenbenz, 42, who was diagnosed with late-stage metastatic melanoma last year, said before the trip.
"This trip really means the world to me and our family - just the break from cancer, to get away from it all and enjoy each other. ... We're not going to think about cancer; we're not going to talk about cancer."His wife learned of the foundation and its mission from an online melanoma support group, and they approached his oncologist, who helped them submit an application."People in this area have heard of Make-a-Wish, but not the Jack and Jill Foundation," she said. "It's a blessing. It's really a blessing."The couple would like more people to become aware of it."Hopefully, others will be able to benefit from it," Kellenbenz said.The foundation was inspired by the real-life story of Jill and Jon Albert. During Jill's fight with Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, they and their two young children realized the disease was not just attacking Jill's body but was affecting the entire family, according to the JAJF website.The Alberts knew strong memories of special times together would be their children's greatest inheritance. They created the foundation to treat families with experiences, giving children and their parents, who are fighting late-stage cancer, a chance to create indispensable memories as a family.The Kellenbenz family is one of two local families selected by the foundation to receive expenses-paid vacations. Matthew Vollmer, Grand Forks, and his family recently returned from their vacation in California.[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2418718","attributes":{"alt":"David, Karrie and Dawson Kellenbenz are looking forward to a trip to Florida to get a break from cancer. photo by Eric Hylden","class":"media-image","height":"340","title":"","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"480"}}]]"They want doctors to prescribe this (to patients)," Holly Undlin, Vollmer's fiancee, said of the foundation.The foundation has helped northern Minnesota families from Nisswa, Frazee, Pequot Lakes and Brainerd and North Dakota families living in Grand Forks, Gilby and Fargo. They are among the nearly 1,100 families to receive vacations in the organization's 10 years of operation."These children and families together deserve a timeout to experience - to feel, to capture positive, fun time together and lasting memories while they can," Jon Albert said. "Life does not end with a diagnosis."'It'll be wonderful'Kellenbenz was "touched" when he and his family found out they'd been selected, he said. "It was pretty emotional.""(The vacation) will be busy, but it'll be wonderful," he said. "We're looking forward to it, after all we've been through."Kellenbenz has been battling cancer since the first sign of it appeared as a mole on his chest in the fall of 2010. His wife told him he should have it checked."At first, I kind of blew it off, not thinking anything of it really," he said. But after a doctor's examination and a biopsy was performed, he was told it was malignant melanoma, "the deadliest of skin cancers."There's a popular misconception that melanoma "is just skin cancer," he said. "It's so much more. You really have to watch your skin."Initial surgeries and other treatments were followed by close monitoring and scans which showed no evidence of melanoma for a few years."We pretty much forgot about melanoma returning," he said.Last July, Kellenbenz started to develop a cough. He was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic melanoma in his lungs, abdomen and neck. He began treatment in August.Because one of the tumors is near his heart, he cannot have surgery; he's receiving chemotherapy and immunotherapy.Emotional roller coaster"A cancer diagnosis is very tough on caregivers - my wife has been wonderful," Kellenbenz said. "They have to face the potential for losing us. It's an emotional roller coaster. Keeping a good attitude is important."Dawson knows his daddy is sick, he said. "We've talked to him some about it. We tell him the doctors are going to help me get better. There's only so much a 4½-year-old can process."We try to keep things as normal as possible."In Florida, Kellenbenz is eager to watch his son play ... "and the smiles," he said. "If he's happy, it makes Karrie and I happy."Added to that, being able to take a vacation free of financial strain "is a big help, what with medical bills."He is focused on "making good memories with Karrie and Dawson," he said. "If I pass away, they will have those memories forever."The foundation provides each family a leather-bound family photo album and family portrait as keepsakes of their "WOW! Experience," a name it trademarked.And he feels up to the trip."I'm lucky. I've been able to continue fairly normal activity," said Kellenbenz, who works full time as a meteorologist in Grand Forks."I'm a very positive person overall," he said, "(but) I do have private times when it's tough." "I'm going to do everything I can to fight (the cancer), to find that treatment that'll work. I pray to God my body responds to it. I'll never give up; I'm a very determined person."He is philosophical about the challenge."If you get a cancer diagnosis, you can roll over and curl up in a ball and melt away," he said. "Or, you can take an active role in treatment."California memoriesEarlier this month, Vollmer, 43, and his family visited SeaWorld, Balboa Park, San Diego Zoo and Coronado Island at San Diego, courtesy of the Jack and Jill Foundation.For the past year, Vollmer has been battling esophageal cancer. After an initial surgery and hospitalization, his treatment has included chemotherapy and radiation. Because a tumor blocks his esophagus, he cannot eat and has been on a feeding tube since March 23, 2015."It's been rather grueling on him," fiancee Undlin said.When Vollmer got sick, she quit her job to take care of him. She is studying online to earn a social work degree at UND.They took the trip to California with their 1-year-old son, Finn, and Vollmer's three daughters from a previous marriage - Matilyn, 9, and twins Emma and Maggie, 6 - who live in Minneapolis."(In San Diego) we were treated like royalty," Undlin said.The foundation arranged for a wheelchair at the airport and transportation between their hotel and their destinations."They took care of everything - flights, meals, (admission to) the theme parks," she said. "They decorated the hotel room and had personalized bags for each of the kids. They were beyond amazing. It's hard to put into words."It was the family's first visit to the ocean, she said. "It was everything we could have dreamed of and then some."At each location, they were given behind-the-scenes tours, a scooter to conserve Vollmer's energy and front-of-the-line access to the rides at Legoland.The vacation was meaningful for Vollmer."It was very important to have my children all together in one spot and just be with them and not have to worry about cancer," he said."I think my daughters cherished the time they spent with their brother, and cherished the time they spent with me."The family took "a lot of pictures and have memories of happy times, with lots of laughs and giggles and smiles and (a) good vibe," he said.Undlin said it was important for the children to see their father "not feeling sick all the time - to see Dad can still do some things with you and have those memories.""We really don't know how long we have," Undlin said. "Finn may not remember him, so (later on) I can show these pictures to him and talk about his father and these happy times."Experience boosts 'urge to fight'Vollmer and Kellenbenz are the first patients Dr. Anil Potti, an oncologist with the Cancer Center of North Dakota in Grand Forks, has recommended to the foundation."We're a smaller cancer center, so we we don't have many younger patients with advanced-stage disease," he said.He was eager to help them with their applications to receive a donated trip."(Cancer patients) are in the fight of their lives. It's a fight, many days, they think they're going to lose," Potti said.A vacation with their families "gives them a much-needed emotional boost - that urge to fight. They think, 'Maybe we can do this next year.'"Looking forward to some special event gives them an emotional boost, emotional strength. The impact is immeasurable. It's hard to put into words."Even if things don't work out, at least they can say, 'We did this for our children,' " he said."I truly believe positive things happen to positive thinkers. ... If you have a positive attitude and are in the right hands, that's the best we can do."The Vollmer family strives to keep an upbeat attitude."When you have a 1-year-old running around the house, it's hard not to smile," Undlin said. "He lifts us up every day, and he doesn't even know it.""I try to stay on the positive - one day at a time," Vollmer said. "I feel blessed that I have the time I've been given."David and Karrie Kellenbenz and their young son, Dawson, of Gilby, N.D., recently left for an all-expenses-paid dream vacation in Florida, where they're making memories to last a lifetime.In Orlando, they're staying several days at the Ritz-Carlton hotel and exploring SeaWorld and Legoland.The family's trip is being covered by the Jack and Jill Late Stage Cancer Foundation, which is devoted to giving children, who are facing the possible loss of a parent, an experience focused on fun, not cancer."It should be pretty wonderful," David Kellenbenz, 42, who was diagnosed with late-stage metastatic melanoma last year, said before the trip.[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2418717","attributes":{"alt":"David Kellenbenz shares a moment with their son, Dawson. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald","class":"media-image","height":"480","title":"","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"320"}}]]"This trip really means the world to me and our family - just the break from cancer, to get away from it all and enjoy each other. ... We're not going to think about cancer; we're not going to talk about cancer."His wife learned of the foundation and its mission from an online melanoma support group, and they approached his oncologist, who helped them submit an application."People in this area have heard of Make-a-Wish, but not the Jack and Jill Foundation," she said. "It's a blessing. It's really a blessing."The couple would like more people to become aware of it."Hopefully, others will be able to benefit from it," Kellenbenz said.The foundation was inspired by the real-life story of Jill and Jon Albert. During Jill's fight with Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, they and their two young children realized the disease was not just attacking Jill's body but was affecting the entire family, according to the JAJF website.The Alberts knew strong memories of special times together would be their children's greatest inheritance. They created the foundation to treat families with experiences, giving children and their parents, who are fighting late-stage cancer, a chance to create indispensable memories as a family.The Kellenbenz family is one of two local families selected by the foundation to receive expenses-paid vacations. Matthew Vollmer, Grand Forks, and his family recently returned from their vacation in California.
"They want doctors to prescribe this (to patients)," Holly Undlin, Vollmer's fiancee, said of the foundation.The foundation has helped northern Minnesota families from Nisswa, Frazee, Pequot Lakes and Brainerd and North Dakota families living in Grand Forks, Gilby and Fargo. They are among the nearly 1,100 families to receive vacations in the organization's 10 years of operation."These children and families together deserve a timeout to experience - to feel, to capture positive, fun time together and lasting memories while they can," Jon Albert said. "Life does not end with a diagnosis."'It'll be wonderful'Kellenbenz was "touched" when he and his family found out they'd been selected, he said. "It was pretty emotional.""(The vacation) will be busy, but it'll be wonderful," he said. "We're looking forward to it, after all we've been through."Kellenbenz has been battling cancer since the first sign of it appeared as a mole on his chest in the fall of 2010. His wife told him he should have it checked."At first, I kind of blew it off, not thinking anything of it really," he said. But after a doctor's examination and a biopsy was performed, he was told it was malignant melanoma, "the deadliest of skin cancers."There's a popular misconception that melanoma "is just skin cancer," he said. "It's so much more. You really have to watch your skin."Initial surgeries and other treatments were followed by close monitoring and scans which showed no evidence of melanoma for a few years."We pretty much forgot about melanoma returning," he said.Last July, Kellenbenz started to develop a cough. He was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic melanoma in his lungs, abdomen and neck. He began treatment in August.Because one of the tumors is near his heart, he cannot have surgery; he's receiving chemotherapy and immunotherapy.Emotional roller coaster"A cancer diagnosis is very tough on caregivers - my wife has been wonderful," Kellenbenz said. "They have to face the potential for losing us. It's an emotional roller coaster. Keeping a good attitude is important."Dawson knows his daddy is sick, he said. "We've talked to him some about it. We tell him the doctors are going to help me get better. There's only so much a 4½-year-old can process."We try to keep things as normal as possible."In Florida, Kellenbenz is eager to watch his son play ... "and the smiles," he said. "If he's happy, it makes Karrie and I happy."Added to that, being able to take a vacation free of financial strain "is a big help, what with medical bills."He is focused on "making good memories with Karrie and Dawson," he said. "If I pass away, they will have those memories forever."The foundation provides each family a leather-bound family photo album and family portrait as keepsakes of their "WOW! Experience," a name it trademarked.And he feels up to the trip."I'm lucky. I've been able to continue fairly normal activity," said Kellenbenz, who works full time as a meteorologist in Grand Forks."I'm a very positive person overall," he said, "(but) I do have private times when it's tough." "I'm going to do everything I can to fight (the cancer), to find that treatment that'll work. I pray to God my body responds to it. I'll never give up; I'm a very determined person."He is philosophical about the challenge."If you get a cancer diagnosis, you can roll over and curl up in a ball and melt away," he said. "Or, you can take an active role in treatment."California memoriesEarlier this month, Vollmer, 43, and his family visited SeaWorld, Balboa Park, San Diego Zoo and Coronado Island at San Diego, courtesy of the Jack and Jill Foundation.For the past year, Vollmer has been battling esophageal cancer. After an initial surgery and hospitalization, his treatment has included chemotherapy and radiation. Because a tumor blocks his esophagus, he cannot eat and has been on a feeding tube since March 23, 2015."It's been rather grueling on him," fiancee Undlin said.When Vollmer got sick, she quit her job to take care of him. She is studying online to earn a social work degree at UND.They took the trip to California with their 1-year-old son, Finn, and Vollmer's three daughters from a previous marriage - Matilyn, 9, and twins Emma and Maggie, 6 - who live in Minneapolis."(In San Diego) we were treated like royalty," Undlin said.The foundation arranged for a wheelchair at the airport and transportation between their hotel and their destinations."They took care of everything - flights, meals, (admission to) the theme parks," she said. "They decorated the hotel room and had personalized bags for each of the kids. They were beyond amazing. It's hard to put into words."It was the family's first visit to the ocean, she said. "It was everything we could have dreamed of and then some."At each location, they were given behind-the-scenes tours, a scooter to conserve Vollmer's energy and front-of-the-line access to the rides at Legoland.The vacation was meaningful for Vollmer."It was very important to have my children all together in one spot and just be with them and not have to worry about cancer," he said."I think my daughters cherished the time they spent with their brother, and cherished the time they spent with me."The family took "a lot of pictures and have memories of happy times, with lots of laughs and giggles and smiles and (a) good vibe," he said.Undlin said it was important for the children to see their father "not feeling sick all the time - to see Dad can still do some things with you and have those memories.""We really don't know how long we have," Undlin said. "Finn may not remember him, so (later on) I can show these pictures to him and talk about his father and these happy times."Experience boosts 'urge to fight'Vollmer and Kellenbenz are the first patients Dr. Anil Potti, an oncologist with the Cancer Center of North Dakota in Grand Forks, has recommended to the foundation."We're a smaller cancer center, so we we don't have many younger patients with advanced-stage disease," he said.He was eager to help them with their applications to receive a donated trip."(Cancer patients) are in the fight of their lives. It's a fight, many days, they think they're going to lose," Potti said.A vacation with their families "gives them a much-needed emotional boost - that urge to fight. They think, 'Maybe we can do this next year.'"Looking forward to some special event gives them an emotional boost, emotional strength. The impact is immeasurable. It's hard to put into words."Even if things don't work out, at least they can say, 'We did this for our children,' " he said."I truly believe positive things happen to positive thinkers. ... If you have a positive attitude and are in the right hands, that's the best we can do."The Vollmer family strives to keep an upbeat attitude."When you have a 1-year-old running around the house, it's hard not to smile," Undlin said. "He lifts us up every day, and he doesn't even know it.""I try to stay on the positive - one day at a time," Vollmer said. "I feel blessed that I have the time I've been given."

Related Topics: HEALTHTRAVEL
Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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