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Minnetonka teen has battled brain cancer, will tackle BWCA next

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Julia Ruelle prepares for her daily proton beam therapy for germinoma.
Julia Ruelle, 16 of Minnetonka, prepares for her daily proton beam therapy for germinoma, a rare brain tumor, at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., April 6, 2018.
Brendan Bush for MPR News

The instruction was clear: Remain perfectly still. 

For Julia Ruelle — an active runner, cross-country skier, canoeist, ice skater, camper and just about anything related to being outdoors — that was a tall order. 

But one thing that could help her achieve such stillness was thinking about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, the place her family and she had gone at least five times since she was 10.

Now 16, Ruelle was laying on an MRI table at Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park, about to have her life changed entirely. The severe headaches and vomiting of recent weeks weren't dehydration. They were caused by a golf ball-sized tumor putting undue pressure on her brain.

The next instruction for her family was just as clear: Drive to Children's Hospital in St. Paul for emergency surgery.

Linda Ruelle watches radiation therapy technologists work.
Linda Ruelle watches radiation therapy technologists Matthew Kosch and Oscar Mojica administer proton beam therapy to her daughter, Julia Ruelle, 16.
Brendan Bush for MPR News

"They said don't go home, don't stop, don't get anything to eat," recalled her mother, Linda Ruelle. "It was a pretty quiet drive."

 On the cusp of recovery

That was in December. Now, nearly five months later, Julia Ruelle is on the cusp of beating cancer.

She was diagnosed with a type of rare brain cancer called germinoma that has proven very responsive to a regiment of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

Children treated for germinomas have a 90 percent survival rate, according to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Her tumor has reduced substantially in size.

For now, Julia Ruelle attends classes at Minnetonka High School in the morning, then drives to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., most days for afternoon treatments.

Only a thin layer of hair has grown back since chemo ended. And she still finds herself laying on tables in hospitals. At a recent appointment, she was zapped with radiation from a 20-ton, three-story tall proton beam. 

And all around her, adorning the walls? Pleasing images of outdoor scenes, including a babbling brook.

  When the treatments are done in a few weeks, Ruelle fully expects to be done with brain cancer. And she won't dream of the tranquility of the BWCA while lying on an MRI table. 

Julia Ruelle is treated for a rare brain tumor at Mayo Clinic.
Julia Ruelle prepares for her daily proton beam therapy for germinoma, a rare brain tumor, at Mayo Clinic.
Brendan Bush for MPR News

She will be there in person. 

 Ready for just a little break from parents

Shortly after her diagnosis, Ruelle entered a contest for teenagers from the Ely Outfitting Company. The winning essayist would win an all-expenses-paid, five-day trip into the BWCA with three fellow teen friends. They'd only need to bring clothes. Tents, food, canoe, and all other equipment would be provided. And most important? No parents nor guides allowed.

"I really do love my parents," Ruelle noted. "But three full days in the hospital with them and then three days at home (during chemo treatments), that gets really old."

Her mom admitted she didn't read the essay details. 

"I assumed it was a guided tour," she laughed. "I understood no parents, but I asked who's the guide?"

"Mom, did you even read the form?" Ruelle asked. 

Apparently not well enough, Linda Ruelle answered. 

"I am totally OK with it now, but it was a bit of a shock."

This is the first time Ely Outfitting has held the contest. Owner Jason Zabokrtsky said he had the idea for several years but finally put it together after a group of teenage boys booked a no-parents trip last summer. 

The contest drew more than 70 entries.

For her essay,  Julia Ruelle wrote about growing up loving the outdoors and playing in the mud at family get-togethers. She also wrote of a controversial topic for the Boundary Waters: copper-nickel mining in the watershed (she's opposed). 

Julia Ruelle won an essay contest for a trip to the BWCA.
Julia Ruelle has been receiving daily treatments for a rare brain tumor, germinoma, at Mayo Clinic in Rochester.
Brendan Bush for MPR News

But most of her essay tells of her cancer diagnosis. She even wrote directly, at one point, to one of the contest judges: Fellow teenager and BWCA-lover Joseph Goldstein, who was diagnosed with leukemia when he was 13.

"Other than just the typical cancer similarities," Ruelle wrote to Goldstein, "I wonder if you share the experience of growing a little sick of your parents. I know, it might seem impossible to them, but after being surrounded and worried about almost exclusively by my parents for the last couple months, I'm very ready to escape their concern for a little while."

 Doctors: Nausea and fatigue should be done by trip

Ruelle has picked which friends she'll bring along and which route they'll take — get dropped at entry point 30 near Ely and paddle Lakes One, Two, Three and Four. 

She said her doctors anticipate any languishing physical effects like nausea and fatigue will be gone by mid-June when the trip will happen.

"It's definitely daunting," Ruelle admitted. "I've never done that on my own before. I mean, I've hardly ever carried a canoe on my own. But I have all this experience going with my dad and I've seen him do it all before, and most the time I'm helping him with those daily pieces of camping."

The trip was a "shot in the arm" for Ruelle, said her mom, who plans to rent a place in Ely during the trip, a loophole of sorts that still honors the no-parents rule. 

"She's sick of having cancer and sick of feeling cruddy," Linda Ruelle said. 

"I don't really remember thinking I wasn't going to survive this," Julia Ruelle added. 

And as she wrote in the essay, she dared to dream. 

"I know my dreams will soon be filled with mornings looking out over the water, long days of paddling, dinners laughing beside the campfire, and nights sleeping with only a tent between me and a sky full of stars."