Tribute to a cancer activist

Service for Caje Holst, who lost his legs to the disease, is Saturday

Posted: Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Friends called him the "Rubberman" for the way he rebounded from his medical setbacks. Others knew him simply as the smiling boy who defied the odds.

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Former Juneau resident Caje Holst, 42, died Feb. 20 in Chicago, almost 27 years after being diagnosed with bone cancer at the age of 15. In high school he was given six months to live, but he stunned doctors, friends and supporters with his strength and perseverance.

An outstanding athlete, he refused to give up high school sports even after one leg was amputated. His struggles inspired a statewide telethon that raised more than $300,000 for cancer research.

"He was the young man that you wouldn't forget," said Bella Hammond, widow of former Gov. Jay Hammond. "He really was an inspiration to me and a lot of people. It was quite a number of years since I last saw him, but I think of him often and his family too."

Holst will be buried at 2 p.m. Saturday at Evergreen Cemetery, near the white cross. A reception will follow at 3 p.m. at the Moose Lodge in the Mendenhall Valley.

"Caje is certainly one of the defining people in my life," said his brother, Brian, now living in Serbia. "The challenges he faced and the way he faced them taught me lessons that made me a much stronger, better person than I certainly would have been otherwise."

Remembering Caje Holst

Graveside service: 2 p.m. Saturday, May 27, at Evergreen Cemetery, near the white cross.

Reception: 3 p.m. Saturday, May 27, at the Moose Lodge, 8335 Old Dairy Road, Mendenhall Valley. Everyone is invited to bring a dish and greet Holst's family.

Slide show: Click here for a slideshow tribute to Caje Holst.

In lieu of flowers: Donations will be accepted to the Caje Holst Children's Education Fund, c/o Butch and Janice Holst, 206 Behrends Ave., Juneau, AK 99801.

Memories: Janice Holst, Caje's mother, would like to put together a book of memories about Caje for his daughters, Katie and Emily. To send her your memories, use the above address or There also will be an online guest book,

A Coast Guard family, the Holsts lived in Virginia, New Jersey and Newfoundland before settling in Juneau in August 1978. Caje - the name is short for "Carroll John" - quickly established himself as one of the best soccer players in town. In the summer of 1979, he took a job with the Youth Conservation Corps and around July 4, he flew home with what he thought were shin splints.

Juneau doctors referred the family to Seattle, where he was diagnosed with bone cancer at Children's Orthopedic Hospital. His left leg was amputated the next week. But a few days later, upon his return to Juneau, Caje found the energy to play Frisbee with friends during a picnic at Sandy Beach.

"Everybody said, 'That's just Caje. Caje is going to be Caje no matter what happens to him,'" said Janice Holst, his mother. "He took everything with a smile and didn't complain."

Caje named his prosthetic leg "George" and participated in wrestling and gymnastics during his junior year at JDHS. He did all of that despite shuttling to Seattle for chemotherapy.

"He'd go down for chemo and come back on a Thursday night and go straight to practice from the airport," said his father, Butch. "Then he'd come back up the hill, and wrestle on a Friday night or Saturday. He didn't lay around and feel sick."

In January 1980, he learned that the cancer had spread and multiplied throughout his lungs. Doctors gave him 30 days to live, but he recovered with an experimental intravenous treatment.

The experience inspired his mother to organize a telethon in Juneau to raise money for cancer research. It raised $25,000. Gov. Hammond invited the Holsts to take the telethon statewide. It raised more than $300,000 between 1981 and 1984.

The cancer eventually returned, this time in his right hip. He sought experimental treatment with Japanese neutron radiation but the procedure burned part of his small intestine and incinerated the bone in his right leg. Doctors had to amputate that leg as well.

Holst continued on and attended the University of Alaska Southeast for a few years. He eventually transferred to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., where he majored in history with minors in Spanish and French. There, he met his wife, Amie. They married in the fall of 1992 and lived in Juneau and Anchorage. He worked for the state Department of Pubic Safety, and his last job was as an interpreter and job service professional with the Department of Labor in Anchorage.

He retired in November 2001 due to illness. The Holsts spent a week in Juneau before moving to Omaha, Neb., for eight months of treatment and surgeries on his intestines. He was down to 76 pounds and had been receiving all his feeding intravenously.

In June 2002, the Holsts moved to Holland, Mich., to be closer to Amie's family. Caje spent the last four years home-schooling his daughters - Emily, now 8; and Katie, now 5. Walls of his Michigan home are filled with his books. He was especially fond of military history and the Napoleonic Wars.

The intravenous feeding damaged his liver. Holst hoped to get a small bowel and liver transplant, recover and move back to Alaska. But last Christmas, he began to show signs of jaundice. In February, his family admitted him to Chicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where doctors struggled to diagnose his infection.

In the last several months, his wife said, he found solace in Psalm 118: "In my anguish I cried to the Lord, and he answered by setting me free. The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid."

"Caje said, 'Amie, if I have the surgery and things go well, I'll get better,'" she said. "'I'll be free from all the pain and the time-consuming stuff with all the medications and all the IVs. If it doesn't go well, then I'll be free from all the pain and everything and I'll be in heaven.' Caje didn't want to die, but he was ready."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@

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