Joelle Syverson: Fighting with humor

  • Article by: KATY READ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 6, 2012 - 12:43 PM
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Joelle Syverson is the founder of Humor to Fight the Tumor.

Photo: Joey Mcleister, Special to the Star Tribune

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Laughter is the goal at Joelle Syverson's fundraising galas. But frankly, some years are more cheerful than others.

Syverson is founder of Humor to Fight the Tumor, an annual event at which elegantly dressed guests gather for comedy, dinner, games, an auction and other festivities. (Syverson is pictured [right] with one of the hand-blown glass hearts, donated by artist Stephen Rekstad, that served as centerpieces and auction items for last year's gala.) Money raised goes primarily to the Chicago-based American Brain Tumor Association. This year's ninth annual gala, at The Depot in Minneapolis in September, was hosted by KARE-TV meteorologist Belinda Jensen, featured a speech by a Mayo Clinic radiation oncologist and a performance by standup comedian Henry Cho.

Each year, the event also honors four people with brain tumors and includes a video in which the honorees and their families discuss their situations. Sounds sad, but the intention is to remain upbeat.

"It's an evening to celebrate life," Syverson said. "My goal is that everybody who comes to the event, I want them to leave appreciating every day, whether they have cancer or not. Because life is a gift."

Syverson knows firsthand. Her own brain tumor was diagnosed in 2001. Since then, she has undergone three surgeries and a round of chemotherapy. In May, doctors found signs the tumor was growing again. You'd never know this from meeting Syverson, whose perky energy belies her 46 years, not to mention her condition.

"I feel so incredibly blessed for having the health that I have and for being an 11-year survivor," she said. "This is what I can do to give back to people not as fortunate as me."

A stay-at-home mother who left a corporate career in 1997 after the second of her three children was born, Syverson started Humor to Fight the Tumor after attending a diabetes fundraiser and realizing that nobody was doing anything similar for brain cancer.

She gathered her sister and friends, as well as several people she knew who'd been affected by tumors, either their own or those of loved ones. She obtained a list of possible donors from her banker husband, Leif. When someone mentioned knowing a comedian who might be willing to perform, the organizers decided to center the evening around humor. Someone asked her fundraising goal, she replied, "Goal? I'm a mom with three kids; I'm a simple person. I don't really have a goal. Maybe $10,000?" That first event, in 2004, raised more than nine times that much from its sellout crowd.

Now in a bigger venue, Humor to Fight the Tumor generates around $200,000 a year. This year's figures aren't yet final, but Syverson estimates they'll have raised more than $1.3 million altogether.

Keeping the mood light presents a different sort of challenge. This year, one of the four honorees, 48-year-old dentist Michael Nanne of Edina, died the night before the event. Organizers struggled to decide how to handle the news.

"The last thing we wanted to do was shout from the podium, 'Hey, Mike died last night,'" Syverson said.

They managed a subdued presentation. Nanne's wife and four children all attended, later telling Syverson the experience was "very healing."

Another of the honorees, a man who had entered hospice, died a couple of weeks later. Every year, the written program includes an "in memoriam" page for past honorees who have died.

"Sadly, I've already realized that next year we'll have five more for that page," Syverson said.

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