Mr. Vanek helps his student, Annika Orjansen, during class. (M. )
Mr. Vanek helps his student, Annika Orjansen, during class.


Mr. Vanek’s journey to Sartell

March 2, 2020

How It Began

A week and a half into the new school year at Sartell High School, the Family and Consumer Science teacher Mr. Vanek found himself receiving devastating news.

I’m not an emotional person, so I didn’t cry. Yes, I could be sad, and yes, I could cry, but what is that gonna do? I have to be positive about all this.”

— Mr. Vanek

Last fall, Mr. Vanek scheduled himself at the dentist because of a constant pain in one of his molars. The dentist performed a root canal, but the pain still lingered. Mr. Vanek was told to wait a week, and if the pain continued, he should go to the doctor.

Not even two days later, a new pain sprung from the lymph nodes under his arm. Shortly after, he woke up one morning and his lower back hurt every time he breathed. That same day, Mr. Vanek took a trip to the doctor’s office.

The results of his visit changed his life. He had stage 4, Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a low-survival form of cancer.

The Journey to Sartell

Mr. Vanek didn’t originally live in Minnesota. He and his family moved around before settling in Roseburg, Oregon, where he went through high school.

He pretty much sums up what he was like in high school with this statement: “I was state president of the whole state of Oregon for FCCLA (Family, Career, and Community Leaders of America). I was in leadership, the president of a community service club, and I was on the prevention team for drugs and alcohol.”

It wasn’t until his senior year in high school that Mr. Vanek decided to go to college to become a teacher. He spent a year at a university in Oklahoma, then he transferred to Oklahoma State University, and then finally made his way back home to go to Oregon State for his senior year in college.

As soon as he began looking for a teaching job, Mr. Vanek moved to Minnesota. Two schools wanted him on their staff – Sauk Rapids-Rice High School and Sartell High School. Mr. Vanek did his research; he read up on both schools and debated the pros and cons.

Mr. Vanek explains, “I started reading about how good of a district Sartell was. You have a new school, so the community supports education. There’s a really good budget here too.  For me, it’s all about relationships and how I felt when I talked to Mrs. Steve. It felt like home to me.”

Stage 4, Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma

He had barely started working at his new job in Sartell before he took his trip to the hospital on September 9th. The doctors did a few scans and were able to locate the cancer in his body.

Image of Mr. Vanek’s body scan. The cancer is all of the black areas.

The treatment for an intense form of cancer is an equally intense form of chemotherapy. Mr. Vanek had to take an injection of Rituxan, a medication used to treat autoimmune diseases like cancer. Then, he was subjected to chemotherapy all day for four days, and then injected with more Rituxan. Mr. Vanek went through three cycles of this treatment, having routine scans along the way to see if the lumps had grown or decreased.

To his delight, the cancer was gone after only three cycles. He ended his treatments one week before Thanksgiving. Although his scans were clear, Mr. Vanek isn’t described as cancer-free until five years with no reoccurrence.

Just as a precaution, Mr. Vanek makes routine checks with the doctors every two months to make sure there is no new growth, but there is only an 8% chance of the cancer ever returning.

Mr. Vanek went through a tough time but came out of it much stronger than he was before. He learned new things about himself and saw life in a different way.

I learned that you have to stay positive. Staying sad and complaining about the world isn’t going to help anything. You can’t take life too seriously. You realize some of the things in your life don’t matter. Just enjoy life.”

— Mr. Vanek, FACS teacher at SHS

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