Cloquet community rallies behind local woman's fight with rare cancer

·6 min read

Aug. 5—When Cloquet resident Kayla Gist, 38, talks about her one-in-a-million fight with cancer, she doesn't express fear, sadness, bitterness or anger. Instead, she says she's grateful — grateful for her family and the community.

Since her diagnosis in June, Kayla and her family have received nearly $30,000 in donations through multiple initiatives, such as a GoFundMe page that raised $27,620 in roughly five weeks. The majority of the funds have helped pay for their travel expenses and time off work, according Kayla's husband, Anthony Gist.

"It's all pretty incredible," he said.

Kayla's cancer news came after she was hospitalized during a family vacation for pain associated with what doctors previously thought to be a case of thyroiditis, or inflammation of the thyroid gland. However, after the hospitalization, doctors discovered that Kayla actually had cancer, which was later determined to be stage four epithelioid hemangioendothelioma, or EHE — an extremely rare cancer of the blood vessel cells found in roughly one in every 1 million people.

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Relatives of Cloquet's Kayla Gist wear bracelets showing support for her while working during a rummage sale at Our Savior's Lutheran Church on Saturday, July 31, 2021, in Cloquet. Gist has been diagnosed with epithelioid hemangioendothelioma, or EHE, a rare cancer that grows from the cells that make up the blood vessels. (Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune)

Because the cancer is so rare, doctors don't have very many answers, Anthony said. The limited knowledge available on EHE patients means things like life expectancy and an effective treatment plan are difficult to determine.

Right now, Anthony and Kayla typically spend five nights a week in Rochester area hotels while Kayla receives radiation treatment at the Mayo Clinic. Their daughters, Hannah, age 10, and Elise, age 8, join them sporadically.

The late stage tumors are currently inoperable, so the plan is to continue with radiation five days a week and hydration therapy infusions daily until Kayla's follow-up scans this fall, at which point doctors will determine the effectiveness of radiation.

David Carlson watches as Samantha Johnson pays Crystal Holland of Cloquet during a rummage sale at Our Savior's Lutheran Church on Saturday, July 31, 2021, in Cloquet to benefit Kayla Gist.

(Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune)

Anthony said the lack of answers is stressful for the family, especially with two young children.

"How do you explain that to an 8- and 10-year-old?" he asked.

While Kayla is not in a lot of pain, she is wheelchair-bound and has trouble speaking. She coughs often and relies on Anthony to speak for her the majority of the time — head nods and shakes are her main form of communication.

These limitations can be frustrating for Kayla, but she is grateful for the connection to her husband of 14 years and feels like the radiation is doing its job.

A display set up during a rummage sale at Our Savior's Lutheran Church on Saturday, July 31, 2021, in Cloquet to benefit Kayla Gist of Cloquet. Gist has been diagnosed with epithelioid hemangioendothelioma, or EHE, a rare cancer that grows from the cells that make up the blood vessels.

(Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune)

"I figure there has to be a silver lining in there somewhere," she said.

Kayla is currently on leave from her position as a Senior Financial Analyst at Ascena Retail Group, and Anthony is taking time off from his work at Sappi while Kayla receives treatment in Rochester. They both credit their employers for being "incredible" throughout the whole situation, and say donations are extremely helpful since they are working much less.

These factors, plus the cost of medical expenses not covered by insurance and regular household bills, are the reasons behind some recent fundraisers for the family.

The most recent effort took place when Kayla's family organized a rummage sale at Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Cloquet on Saturday, July 31, and Sunday, Aug. 1. About 250 people attended over the course of two days, purchasing items donated by 20 community members and Kayla's family, said Roschelle Landsverk, event organizer and Kayla's aunt.

The rummage sale raised about $1,900, according to Landsverk.

A rummage sale at Our Savior's Lutheran Church on Saturday, July 31, 2021, in Cloquet to benefit Kayla Gist of Cloquet. Gist has been diagnosed with epithelioid hemangioendothelioma, or EHE, a rare cancer that grows from the cells that make up the blood vessels. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Kayla said this kind of support from the community is exactly why she is so grateful and that people's generosity helps relieve some of the family's stress.

"It's encouraging," she said.

The outreach from the community also lifts the family's spirits, Anthony said. Whether they be brief phone calls, texts, Facebook messages or even messages left on the fundraising pages, he said it all helps.

Michael Zoeller (right) talks to his dad, Jason Zoeller of Wright while holding a set of weights during a rummage sale at Our Savior's Lutheran Church on Saturday, July 31, 2021, in Cloquet to benefit Kayla Gist.

(Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune)

Kayla and Anthony have lived in Cloquet for 10 years. Anthony is a Cloquet native, while Kayla is originally from Fargo, North Dakota. They consider themselves active members of the community and are involved in various local organizations, including the Keller Family Cancer Foundation.

"We've always participated in community events," Anthony said. "Kayla ... helps out with whatever she's asked to help out with on a regular basis."

The two shared that they fundraised for KFCK causes in the past — hoping that if they payed it forward, cancer might skip them. Unfortunately, Anthony said, that wasn't the case, but support from members of the foundation since Kayla's diagnosis has been huge.

"It's pretty cool," he said.

Buttons for sale during a rummage sale at Our Savior's Lutheran Church on Saturday, July 31, 2021, in Cloquet to benefit Kayla Gist of Cloquet. Gist has been diagnosed with epithelioid hemangioendothelioma, or EHE, a rare cancer that grows from the cells that make up the blood vessels.

(Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Kayla and Anthony are currently on hiatus from their community-based activities due to Kayla's condition, but they hope to get back to it soon.

In the meantime, they are focused on taking things one day at a time.

"The initial shock of the news of cancer is kind of past us now," Anthony said.

The cancer wasn't optional, but how Kayla handles it is. She said that despite the diagnosis being out of her control, she is determined to fight.

Relatives of Kayla Gist, Crystal Holland (left) and Jordyn Landsverk, both of Cloquet, visit while working a rummage sale at Our Savior's Lutheran Church on Saturday, July 31, 2021, in Cloquet. The rummage sale is one of several fundraisers friends and family are organizing to help the Gist family.

(Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune)

Current and upcoming fundraisers

Kayla's family remains hard at work, with multiple fundraising events on the horizon. They plan to host a hot dog stand at Walmart in Cloquet on Aug. 20 and 21, as well as a benefit dinner on Oct. 2 at the Cloquet VFW. The event will include dinner, a silent auction and possibly some live music, according to Landsverk.

To donate to Kayla Gist's GoFundMe, visit https://www.gofundme.com/f/kayla-gist-one-in-a-million-cancer-fund.

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