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Relay For Life: South Washington County's winning warrior

Jackie Mines of Woodbury is this year’s honorary survivor at the Relay for Life of South Washington County. (Bulletin photo by William Loeffler)

The day she turned 50, Jackie Mines learned that she had cancer.

“What a great birthday present,” she joked.

On Jan. 8, 2011, her doctor called her at work to tell her that she had breast cancer. She was diagnosed with stage 3A, meaning that the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes.

“I’m sitting in my office and then I have to figure out what to do,” she said. “Do I call my kids? It’s a very lonely experience.”

Mines, who has been cancer-free for two years, is this year’s honorary survivor at the Relay for Life of South Washington County. She will speak about the lessons, low points and triumphs of her experience at the opening ceremony at 6 p.m. on Friday, June 6 at East Ridge High School in Woodbury.

“I was going to say ‘no’ but I felt it really was an honor. I thought it was important to thank the people who have been there for me,” she said.

That includes her children, Alexandra, 24, and Jack, 29.

“They were always positive, always caring,” Mines said. “Everybody made sure that I didn’t go to chemo alone. They were always there with a smile.”

Since its inception in 2010, Relay For Life of South Washington County has raised nearly $800,000, making it the most successful relay in Minnesota. A  previous incarnation, Relay for Life of Woodbury, began in the mid-1990s. Together, both events have raised $2 million for the American Cancer Society.

The public is welcome whether or not they participate in the walk. Admission is free. Food, games and luminary bags will be available for purchase. A silent auction will include such items as tickets to “The Book of Mormon,” restaurant gift certificates and a liquor basket. RE/Max will offer tethered balloon rides and the mayors of Cottage Grove, Woodbury, Newport and St. Paul Park will face off in a jousting tournament for the Mayoral Challenge fundraiser.

Mines admits she is nervous about speaking publicly about so frightening a personal experience. But as a cancer survivor, she said she feels a responsibility to rally others who are fighting  the disease.

“Other people who have gone through it are really helpful during that time,” she said. “They know how scary and how lonely it is. Other people just don’t want to be reminded because we’re all vulnerable to it. That’s what makes it so important to do this kind of thing.”

During her own ordeal, she got support from her ex-husband, Pat Schwartz, a testicular cancer survivor, and her sister-in-law, Shirley Mines, who beat cancer 10 years ago by undergoing a bone marrow transplant.

“The thing that struck me the most about her was her fighting attitude and the fact that she never, ever allowed herself to think that she wasn’t going to beat it,” Mines said. “Throughout  this whole experience she was my biggest cheerleader. If I was down, if I was questioning, she was always there with, ‘You are not going to let this get to you. You are not going to let this beat you.’”

“We try and pick someone that has a relevant story and is involved with the Relay,” said Mara Mayberry, a 10-year breast cancer survivor and a member of the organizing committee. “I recruited Jackie to join this year. She came to the first committee meeting and immediately joined and took over the silent auction responsibility, which is a big job. We were so impressed with her commitment to join and participate that we thought she would be an excellent choice for honorary survivor.”

Mines works for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, where she is director of the Division of Emergency Communication Networks.

She said she was determined to keep working despite her cancer. She scheduled her chemotherapy treatments for Thursday. She could return to work Friday, be sick over the weekend and recover in time to return to work Monday.

One of cancer’s side effects is its potential to isolate the patient socially. People might avoid them out of fear or awkwardness, or coddle them.

Mines had a particular reason to be concerned. The man she was dating, Randy Willis, had lost his wife to ovarian cancer.

“That was only five years previous to the time we met and I thought, ‘He’s not going to want to go through this again,’” Mines said.

He stuck with her, though. They were married in July 2013.

At Relay For Life, she hopes to pass on her belief that cancer needn’t carry a stigma.

“I think one of the things that stands out for me was that I really didn’t want cancer to define me. That’s why I wanted to keep working,” she said. “I made a sort of commitment  inside my head that I am not going to let this get the best of me and I’m not going to let it define who I am or what my life is going to be like.”

Those who want to participate in the relay can register for $10 by visiting

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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