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Cancer journey leads to Saturday Birthday Bash for local farmer Tim Hansberger

Event is from 5 to 9 p.m. Saturday at Round Lake Vineyard & Winery.

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The Hansberger family, including Eli, Susan, Tim and Evan, gathered for a photo following the Worthington FFA Chapter banquet in February.
Special to The Globe

WORTHINGTON — For the Tim and Susan Hansberger family of Worthington, life has been like a roller coaster since March 13, 2020. Most will remember that time as the last days before the COVID-19 pandemic forced a statewide shutdown of non-essential businesses.

For the Hansbergers, March 13 was when they heard the news no one ever wants to hear — that a lump on Tim’s left thigh was osteosarcoma. The bone cancer is most commonly found in juveniles or the elderly, not in healthy men with two teenage sons at home.

“There are only about 500 cases a year,” Tim said.

Osteosarcoma is a beast, added his wife, Susan. It’s a beast because it can — and often does — return, typically in the lungs. It did so for Tim, who recently completed surgery and chemotherapy to eradicate several nodules in his lungs.

He is currently in remission — in between his last chemotherapy treatment and his first three-month scan — and with his 46th birthday this Friday, his farming neighbors and friends have planned a Birthday Bash and benefit in Tim’s honor. The event is open to the public, and is planned from 5 to 9 p.m. Saturday at Round Lake Vineyard & Winery, 30124 Minnesota 264, Round Lake.

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The bash will include a free-will donation burger bar with burgers grilled by the Rock-Nobles Cattlemen, and fresh-cut French fries prepared by the Nobles County Corn and Soybean Growers Association. Members of those groups are coming out to support Tim, who farms north of Worthington and has long been an agricultural advocate with his service on various boards.

“This is really a celebration,” said Bill Gordon, one of the committee members organizing the bash.

It’s about celebrating Tim’s successful battle and celebrating life, Gordon said.

Included in the celebration is a live auction, planned to start at 7 p.m. Saturday. Numerous donated items are on the auction, including metal art, a John Deere grill, quilts, a go-cart, outdoor pool, boat ride and meal on Lake Shetek, and a three-night stay in the Black Hills.

Some birthday surprises are also planned during the evening.

Initial diagnosis

During the 2019 harvest, Tim noticed a lump on his thigh that appeared to come out through his quad muscle.

“It felt a lot like a knot in the muscle if you overworked it,” shared Susan. “We had done a lot of bin work that day and didn’t really think a lot about it.”

While the lump was still visible after harvest was completed, Tim said it wasn’t painful. It remained that way until February when, while at the state swim meet with sons, Evan and Eli, Tim’s knee began to hurt.

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It led to their decision to visit the Orthopedic Institute’s walk-in clinic in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the day after President’s Day in 2020. An x-ray of Tim’s knee was the first thing ordered.

It wasn’t until their nurse stepped out and began rapid-fire talking with other health professionals that the Hansbergers had an inkling this was a serious problem.

“The doctor we were supposed to see, we never saw,” recalled Tim.

Instead, a different doctor entered and told Tim there was nothing wrong with his knee, but that the lump on his femur wasn’t supposed to be there.

Tim was asked to return two days later for a CT and bone scan; with an appointment to see an orthopedic surgeon on Friday.

That next Monday, a biopsy was conducted and the surgeon scraped cells off the surface of the tumor. It took two weeks before they received the results — two long weeks during which Tim’s surgeon also received a second opinion from a Harvard doctor who specializes in osteosarcoma.

“He was 80% sure that this is what it is, but he didn’t want to move ahead with a treatment plan until he received the second opinion,” shared Tim. “It didn’t matter what (the Harvard doctor) specialized in — it wasn’t anything good.”

The osteosarcoma was confirmed on March 13, and the Hansbergers were referred to Mayo Health in Rochester.

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Treatment plan

Tim’s chemotherapy treatment plan was designed by Mayo Health, but he received his treatments at Avera in Sioux Falls and at Sanford Worthington Oncology.

“There was some high-grade cell growth in the tumor that the biopsy showed and they wanted to do chemo to knock it back before we did surgery,” explained Tim.

He did six rounds of chemo in Sioux Falls starting in early April 2020, followed by four rounds in Worthington. Surgery was then performed in June at Mayo.

“They felt like they got everything,” Tim said. “They had clean margins; they took out the bottom 10 inches of my left femur and replaced that with a titanium rod that goes another six inches into the femur.

“I had to have a knee replacement at the same time,” he added.

With any form of cancer, there’s always a chance it can return. In Tim’s case, his surgical team was confident the cancer was gone from his leg. Still, they did two more rounds of chemo in August.

“That summer, I was feeling good,” Tim recalled. He was on the road to improved health through rehabilitation.

Waiting and watching

After his chemo treatments in August 2020, Tim had chest CT scans every three months to watch for cancer growth. Osteosarcoma, if it comes back, often does so in the lungs.

Life resumed to mostly normal, with Tim in the combine during harvest and Susan hauling loads of grain, with harvest help from both of their fathers.

Then, in April 2021 — just as Tim was preparing for spring planting — his chest CT revealed a 4 millimeter nodule in the upper lobe of his right lung. It was labeled worrisome, but it was too small to be biopsied.

“We watched it all summer,” said Susan. “It has to be big enough to biopsy and confirm, but it can’t get too big because it gets too hard to treat.”

“Until it gets to 10 millimeters, they can’t get a definitive biopsy,” added Tim.

The nodule reached 10 millimeters in August, and within the week, the Hansbergers returned to Mayo for a biopsy.

“The 10 millimeter was the largest, but there were four that they were keeping an eye on,” Tim said. As soon as one got big enough, they biopsied it. It didn’t really matter what the rest were — one was confirmed positive.”

He was once again scheduled for chemotherapy, which began after harvest, at Tim’s request.

“We would do one day in Sioux Falls and the other four days in Worthington,” he said, adding that after five days of chemotherapy, he had 16 days of rest before the next round would start. The couple returned to Mayo in January to discuss the steps to remove the nodules.

The first was ablated (frozen to kill it) on Feb. 7. A week later, on Valentine’s Day, Tim had surgery to remove two nodules located along the wall of his right lung. A second ablation was completed on March 2, and on March 15, scans were done to confirm all were removed.

“His PET scan came back clean in March,” Susan shared. “His CT, we’re still going to have to watch very closely. He will have scans every three months for the next two years.”

Tim’s next appointment is scheduled for June at Mayo.

Doctoring during COVID

With healthcare systems overrun during the pandemic, and being extra careful about those who came in for non-COVID issues, Tim was oftentimes in appointments or receiving treatments while Susan waited in the parking lot. During visits with his doctors, she joined them on speaker phone.

“Information regarding an illness like cancer, it’s a super positive thing to have a second set of ears inside the room,” Susan said. “That was hard to not be able to be (there).”

The pandemic also meant keeping their two socially active teens on lockdown.

“It wasn’t easy on them; they dealt with it incredibly well,” said Susan. “We could not take any chances, and that was kind of hard to make them fully understand. (Tim’s) immune system was so shot.”

“Some of the days I was really bad in 2020, I think that helped them understand where we were coming from,” Tim said, noting he lost nearly 40 pounds during his 12 weeks of chemotherapy.

Today, Tim said he’s feeling pretty good — and getting stronger every day.

The Hansbergers are so appreciative to everyone who has helped them get through the past two years, from the help they received on the farm to the four months of daily meals that were delivered to their doorstep in 2020, thanks in large part to family friends and their church family at St. Matthew Lutheran. Friendships forged when their sons played hockey and competed on the swim team — even Mothers of Preschoolers — rallied around them.

“Being Tim’s caregiver, I couldn’t have cooked all those meals without their help,” Susan said. “Everyone’s been amazing.”

“It’s been overwhelming at times,” added Tim. “The generosity has been overwhelming.”

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