DULUTH — The Amble for Anders fun run/walk is on the backburner now during the COVID-19 pandemic, but 12-year-old Anders Breidenbach is looking forward to the day when family, friends and community members can gather in his honor.

“It will be amazing to see,” he said of the event to be held on the Superior National Forest’s Millennium Trail at a date to be determined.

Anders, a seventh grader at Ordean East Middle School, is battling cancer for the second time in his young life. Diagnosed in February with osteosarcoma, or bone cancer, in his right femur, Anders is undergoing two five-week chemotherapy sessions, followed by surgery to remove his knee and part of his femur and then another 20 weeks of chemo.

Still, the wheelchair-bound youngster keeps an upbeat attitude and a positive outlook on the future.

“Whenever I am feeling really bad physically or mentally, I look forward to when I will be able to walk again and when my treatment will be done,” he said. “I just remember that there are other people in the world who have to go through things way harder than this.”

Newsletter signup for email alerts

That mentality continually lifts the spirits of his parents, Gini and Mike.

“He has a tremendous outlook,” Gini Breidenbach said. “He told me a couple weeks before he started treatment, ‘Mom, I’m ready for whatever happens.’ He’s in acceptance with what he has to deal with so he faces it every day. It’s really inspiring. He’s 12 going on 40.”

Not limited by cancer

Nine months after birth, Anders was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a rare form of cancer that developed in both retinas.

He underwent six months of systemic chemotherapy, along with cryotherapy and laser treatments, as he moved around from the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.

When the tumors in his eyes returned, Anders’ parents and doctors opted to try intra-arterial chemotherapy — a new treatment at the time — at New York City's Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, one of the few hospitals doing the procedure.

That method saved his eyes.

However, since Anders carries a mutation of the RB1 gene, it makes him more susceptible to various types of cancer.

“We’ve been watching for other types of cancer to show up,” his mother said. “It’s not guaranteed, but it’s in the back of your mind.”

That vulnerability didn’t prevent Anders from enjoying his youth while growing up in the Congdon neighborhood of Duluth.

“I like to curl and play soccer and ski downhill and cross country,” he said. “I do a lot of mountain biking and road biking.”

Though limited to only peripheral vision in his left eye, Anders wasn’t discouraged from doing what he enjoyed.

“We decided when he was little to not let anything limit him,” Gini said. “We didn’t want his story to be a weight on his shoulders. Anything he wanted to try and do, we were all for it. He’s just a happy, well-adjusted child. He lives a full life.”

In addition to his outdoor activities, Anders competes in Knowledge Bowl at Ordean East and is a spelling bee champion.

“He’s a very intelligent kid,” Gini said. “He loves to play violin, is a math whiz and is super interested in science and engineering. He has qualified for the state spelling bee the last two years.”

Gini Breidenbach and son Anders enjoy walks together, despite him having to use a wheelchair. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Gini Breidenbach and son Anders enjoy walks together, despite him having to use a wheelchair. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Facing surgery

Things began to change after Anders returned home from a bonspiel in St. Paul.

“I started having this weird limp in my right leg,” he said. “It didn’t bother me much, but then a few days later I woke up and I was in terrible pain.”

An X-ray at Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center showed a dark spot on his right femur, revealing low bone density. A subsequent magnetic resonance imaging scan showed the cancer.

Since the impacted bone must be removed, Anders essentially faces three surgical options, two of which involve amputation. The third option would be a sophisticated prosthetic knee/femur replacement.

“That is the surgery that we are leaning toward,” Gini said. “That would leave him not being able to run ever again.”

Anders’ parents say they have not discussed a long-term prognosis with doctors, but early reports are promising.

“His tumor is responding to the chemotherapy, which is really good news,” Gini said.

In addition to medical treatments, Anders is using Qigong, a centuries-old Chinese energy healing method that involves meditation and deep rhythmic breathing.

Anders is being homeschooled during his treatment and, being more susceptible to the coronavirus, he and his parents, older sister Aurora and Louise, their Border Collie/Black Labrador mix, rarely venture out.

“We have to be extra careful with him,” Gini said of her son. “He doesn’t go anywhere except outside or his medical appointments. We very rarely go to the grocery store and have contact with other people.”

Fun run fundraiser

Eve Graves, a family friend of the Breidenbachs, first met Anders while he was recovering from eye cancer and immediately was drawn to the boy.

“He’s the smartest, most talented, caring, amazing kid that I’ve ever met,” she said. “The kid is brilliant, he doesn’t miss a thing. I taught him to play violin and he picked it up immediately. He’s really, really smart.”

Since Graves organizes plenty of running events throughout the year, she suggested a fun run.

“I thought it would be a fun way to get people together to see him and have Anders involved,” she said.

When the fundraising event couldn’t be held this spring due to COVID-19, Graves came up with an idea of selling sweatshirts and T-shirts with the Amble for Anders logo on them.

“Anders loves the outside and being in the woods so he loved the idea of having a community event where people could show their support for him and be active,” his mother said. “Ultimately, we left the choice up to Anders and he thought this would be fun.”

Until then, Anders is battling his latest foe, all while thanking those who are aiding him in the journey.

“I have all my family and my friends and doctors and staff at Essentia supporting me,” he said.