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'Tami Love': Duluth entrepreneur battling cancer with positivity, support of friends

Tami LaPole Edmunds and Dan Edmunds, owners of Art in the Alley, are staying positive in the wake of Tami's cancer diagnosis earlier this year. She has finished chemotherapy and hopes to get back to work as soon as possible at her boutiques downtown and at Miller Hill Mall. Courtesy Tami LaPole Edmunds1 / 2
Art in the Alley is selling pendants with necklaces made by owner Tami LaPole Edmunds while she battles cancer. Called Tami Love, the pendants say "I am Abundant Health" on the back. Courtesy Art in the Alley2 / 2

Color follows Tami LaPole Edmunds everywhere. It illuminates her stores, brightens her jewelry and warms up the hospital room she's been spending too much time in this year.

The owner of Art in the Alley and all-around community servant finished her last chemotherapy session on Saturday as she continues to vanquish the lymphoma that was discovered in March.

"I think I can rebound relatively quickly," Edmunds said from St. Luke's last week.

Diagnosed with a highly curable form of the cancer, Edmunds projects a positivity that some healthy people struggle to fake.

Yet for many entrepreneurs, spending this much time away from work could spell the end of their business. With a solid team in place and her husband and business partner Dan Edmunds able to step in, Edmunds is able to worry a little less.

Plus, she hasn't really been away.

"Every shift close, they let me know their sales," she said of her employees. "I told the stores we're going to sail the ship straight through all of this."

With a colorful blanket, table full of jewelry to work on and postcards from customers taped to the wall of her hospital room, she's facing this challenge the same way she faces the rest of her life: with a smile.

"Some people call this poison; I call it life juice," Edmunds said as the drugs continued to course into her body.

Abundant health

Mayor Emily Larson this year ceded some of her territory to Edmunds, dubbing her "Queen of the Lakewalk" at a Greater Downtown Council event.

Every morning in the cold or the sun, Edmunds would walk a four-mile stretch of the lakeside path, greet everyone she passes and join a regular group of friends for coffee before getting to work on her downtown and Miller Hill Mall women's clothing boutiques.

During treatment, her walks have been limited to up and down the hallway that also houses hospice patients.

"I'm going from working 60 hours a week to seven days a week in the hospital," said Edmunds, 53. "How does someone who is as involved as I am stay connected?"

Her answer was to craft necklaces she calls Tami Love — colorful beads holding a circular palm on a pendant that also says "I am Abundant Health."

The response has been overwhelming.

"We've been seeing these all over town and shipping them all over the country," Art in the Alley employee Kathy "Happy" Ponder said from the downtown shop at 230 E. Superior St.

"The support and customer loyalty has been awesome," she said as her eyes watered. "I can't believe how much we miss her."

Tami Love

Edmunds hasn't been able to interact with her staff, customers or vendors directly — can't risk infection, her doctors say, and the fatigue of chemotherapy is overwhelming at times. But she does sneak into the store before it opens, leaving notes of encouragement and directions for employees, Ponder said.

And some Sundays, Edmunds wanders around the closed shop to breathe in the business that she and her husband have worked for nine years to maintain and grow.

She is still handling the ordering — by phone instead of online thanks to "chemo brain," she says — and keeping tabs on everything, though it has been tough to adjust to a life without her volunteering and community service, be it through Visit Duluth, the Greater Downtown Council, the Chamber of Commerce or elsewhere. Edmunds is a lot of things to a lot of people.

The last leg of treatment, when her body works to kick the drugs out of her system, is also testing her positive outlook, but she refuses to look at anything in the "difficult column."

"I told the head of the pharmacy, you've devoted your life to keeping me alive. It's a marvel," Edmunds said, taking from the "positive column."

Dan Edmunds said owning a business might have made it less difficult to weather the cancer than if his wife had missed several months of work somewhere else — especially with all the support of the store's customers.

"We've been fortunate that ... we can take time to step away," he said.

While a return to work should happen this year, Edmunds plans to ease herself back into the full-time — overtime, rather — life of an entrepreneur. In the meantime, more pendants of abundant health, more Tami Love.

"How can people help? Shop downtown," she said.

Brooks Johnson

Brooks covers business and the economy for the Duluth News Tribune.

(218) 723-5329
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