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Woodbury's Netten speaking to tonight's Relay for Life crowd

Zach Netten is this year's Relay for Life of South Washington County honorary survivor. He will speak at the opening ceremony.

While most students kicked off new chapters of their lives at East Ridge High School last fall, Zach Netten's freshman year has been filled with completely different experiences.

A week after the start of the school year, the 14-year-old Woodbury teen was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma.

But months of chemotherapy, radiation and a positive outlook on life produced the outcome that he was hoping for: Netten is now cancer free.

Netten was chosen as this year's Relay for Life of South Washington County honorary survivor. He will talk about the ups and downs of his disease at the opening ceremony slated to begin at 6 p.m., Friday June 7.

At first, Netten had a persistent cough, which lasted about a year and even puzzled doctors.

"Nobody could really put a finger on it," he said.

After getting multiple tests and a chest X-ray, Netten got the call during his fifth hour on Sept. 12. He needed to go back to the hospital ASAP.

At first he said doctors thought it was an aortic aneurism, which is why he had to get rushed back for surgery. But a biopsy revealed it was cancer of the lymph nodes.

"I was officially diagnosed and I had my first round of chemo," Netten said, after tugging his collar to the side showing where a scar from his biopsy remains.

Speaking eloquently about the disease, Netten, who stands about 6 feet tall, wants everyone who's ever heard the word "cancer" to never give up.

"A lot of people associate cancer with, almost like a death sentence," he said. "If you go into things with a positive attitude and have some support, you can totally get through it."

Nearly 10 months after his diagnosis, four rounds of intense chemotherapy and another four of less-intense treatments with radiation, Netten's scans recently came back clear.

The experience taught him to be patient: he missed about half the school year and tryouts for this baseball season. His knees are still suffering from side effects of a steroid, so he won't be able to play basketball again for a while.

"People tend to not like school so much, but after not being there, you'd rather be there and not at home," he said.

Netten is working on a speech that will mostly be upbeat, he said, because he wants to stay positive and encouraging for all cancer survivors and caregivers attending the event.

"I don't want to go up there and be totally depressing," he said. "I want to throw some humor in there."

Mara Mayberry, a nine-year breast cancer survivor and one of the organizers of the Relay event, said Netten's positivity, his journey through freshman year of high school and his overall demeanor was inspiring.

"The thing that struck me most about Zach was his tenacity, but also the fact that he came to realize that the positive attitude has such an impact on the outcome," she said. "We're so excited for him that all his scans were clear and it looks like he's beaten it. A true survivor."

Relay for Life of South Washington County is the largest and most successful relay in Minnesota, raising about $750,000 since its inception four years ago.

Before expanding to include multiple south Washington County communities, Relay for Life of Woodbury started in the mid-1990s and all events since then have raised a total of $2 million.

Overall, Relay events across the world have raised $4.5 billion for the American Cancer Society since 1985.

"When I see all the people gathered together with the same mission, it really warms my heart," Mayberry said. "We're all there to finish this fight against cancer."

Although organizers are excited to continue donating to the American Cancer Society, they're hopeful one day they will no longer need to do that.

"We're all happy to have provided services for ACS," Mayberry said. "We don't want to see too many more birthdays for ACS because we want to eradicate this disease."

Riham Feshir
Riham Feshir is a reporter and photographer for the Woodbury Bulletin. Her coverage includes Woodbury City Hall, Washington County Board of Commissioners and business news.  Follow Riham on Twitter @RihamFeshir for the latest updates.