Changemaker: Outspoken PFAS critic Amara Strande, who died from cancer in 2023

Amara Strande testifies before the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee Jan. 31 in support of a bill that would prohibit PFAS in children’s products. Copyright Minnesota House of Representatives. Photo by Andrew VonBank

Originally published May 3, 2023

The photos displayed in Guardian Angels Catholic church in Oakdale showed Amara Strande as a baby, Amara singing, Amara helping with a food drive.

But the first poster board Amara’s mourners saw when they walked in the church for her recent memorial service highlighted her work lobbying. She spent her final months urging lawmakers to more strictly regulate chemicals made by 3M, whose massive global headquarters is less than four miles to the west.

Many of the mourners attended Tartan High School with Amara, where cancer was so common that students joked about avoiding drinking from the water fountains.

Amara Strande, 20, died on April 14 of cancer. 

The first poster board mourners saw at Amara Strande’s memorial service highlighted her work to regulate toxic chemicals. Photo by Deena Winter/Minnesota Reformer

Amara and her friends and family wonder if the water contamination caused by 3M dumping toxic chemical waste in the East Metro for decades contributed to the cancer diagnosis of her and so many of her friends and neighbors.

Among the grieving is Jesse Flanagan. She went to Tartan High School for awhile, and became good friends with Amara following an incident with Jesse’s brother Jacob Flanagan. After some students teased Jacob Flanagan as he gave a presentation, Amara came home feeling guilty because she didn’t come to Jacob’s defense.

She asked her parents how she could make it right. Dana and Michael Strande told her to ask Jacob to forgive her. After that, the two became friends, and Amara eventually befriended his sisters Jesse and Katie, too.

Jesse Flanagan said Amara was the only one who stood up for Jacob.

“Amara kind of was someone who looked out for the underdog,” Dana Strande said.

Amara picked out the shoes Jesse Flanagan was to wear at the funeral, calling them “badass bitch” high heels.

Jesse Flanagan wrote out what she wanted to say at the memorial service, but struggled to get through it.

“I am not OK,” she said at one point. “We are not OK.”

‘How do you cry when you lose your tears?’

In frizzy hair and a flowery skirt, Amara Strande took to the stage at Tartan High School, sat down at a piano and began playing and singing.

It was a 2021 awards ceremony for seniors, but Amara had bigger things on her mind. She sang a song she wrote called “I am the Strange.” The first verse was “How do you cry when you lose your tears?”

While her classmates dealt with tests and dating and acne, at age 15 Amara began getting headaches, nausea, nosebleeds and stomach pain.

Amara Strande took this selfie with her father, Michael, on a day they testified at the state capitol on PFAS legislation. Submitted photo

She was diagnosed with a type of cancer called fibrolamellar hepatocellular carcinoma. A nearly 15-pound tumor was extracted from her liver over the course of two surgeries that nearly killed her.

This type of cancer strikes just one in 5 million Americans ​​between the ages of 15 to 39. Most young patients die within three years of diagnosis: As she sang that night, Amara was four years in.

Cancer was no stranger to the audience. A 2017 study found that a child who died in Washington County between 2003 and 2015 was 171% more likely to have had cancer than a child who died in the surrounding area.

In the 1940s and 1950s, 3M disposed of waste from its chemical plant in 60 acres of undeveloped, low land in what is now Oakdale. Dumping waste into unlined pits was common then.

In 2005, state health officials announced that the chemicals had contaminated Oakdale’s water.

During Amara’s senior year, one of her best friend’s mom died of cancer. Another girl’s dad died of cancer. Another student’s mom died.

And so many students got cancer that Amara started a support group. Jan Churchill, who taught math at the high school for 19 years, organized the first Relay for Life in 2002, and THS has since consistently hosted one of the leading fundraisers in the entire nation. Amara was among six current and former THS students with cancer to attend the 2018 fundraiser.

Amara gave a speech: “The only thing I will regret from high school is if I leave only being known as the girl who has cancer,” she said. “I want to be remembered for who I am, not the events that happened to me.”

Refrain: ‘Take away my cries; my agonizing demise’

Amara was a solid softball pitcher, always wanted the basketball when she was on the court, and earned nearly every badge possible in Girl Scouts. She earned the gold award for writing a manual for the Tartan Cancer Alliance support group.

But when Make-A-Wish came calling, her wish was to write a song for the World of Warcraft video game.

She got a song into the game, and she immortalized her cat, Jenny. Gamers who solve an especially difficult puzzle win a “battle pet,” a fat cat named Jenafur. Amara raised $11,000 for cancer research by giving players clues to solve the puzzle and earn Jenafur.

At the funeral, Katie Flanagan played “Saint Honesty” by Sara Bareilles on the guitar Amara bought her. Katie played the same song for Amara four weeks before she died in her parents’ basement, near her bedroom and home music studio, where a whiteboard still has Amara’s “to do” list. Most of her list was music related and written in squiggly blue, purple and green Dry-Erase markers; she had to learn to write with her left hand after she lost the use of her right.

A sign by her bed explained to hospice helpers how to rouse her with “hype music” and a “bright light.”

Verse 2: ‘I can scream as loud as I can — no one seems to hear me’

Three days after Amara died, Jesse Flanagan and other friends and family members went to the state Capitol to urge state representatives walking into the House chamber to vote for a bill that would strictly regulate 3M chemicals, because Amara couldn’t. 

Three days after Amara Strande died, her family and friends — including Xander Ahnes (left to right) Jesse Flanagan, Colton Savakinus and Monica Wainio — lobbied lawmakers to pass legislation cracking down on PFAS chemicals. Photo by Deena Winter/Minnesota Reformer

During her last weeks, Amara used a wheelchair to get to committee meetings. She would park it near the door and walk, shakily, to the front row. When it was her turn to testify, the room would fall silent as people strained to hear her weakened voice tell her story.

“2022 was the year my cancer became unstoppable,” she told lawmakers in three committee hearings. “They can’t do surgery this time. There are no more treatments to try.”

She had more than 20 surgeries to remove tumors, until doctors could no longer cut the cancer out. Last year, four tumors returned, growing next to her heart, wrapping around her upper right chest, fracturing her ribs. She lost the use of her right arm and the pain was excruciating, she said.

Still, she insisted on the trips to the Capitol.

“It took a lot of energy from her — at the same time, it energized her,” said her dad, Michael Strande.

But by the time the legislation hit the House floor, Amara was gone. She died on a Friday; the floor session was the following Monday — one day after she would have turned 21.

Her family slung her white shawl over a seat in the House gallery where Amara would have sat. Her parents sat in the gallery for nearly nine hours listening to representatives debate a catch-all budget bill. Shortly before midnight — after debates about encroaching wolves and fishing license fees — it passed.

Verse 2: ‘Twisted and burning and rotting, I cry inside but my eyes are dry’

Amara talked to a reporter from Australia in 2018, hoping to find out if Oakdale’s water caused her cancer.

That’s very difficult to do, said Notre Dame physicist Graham Peaslee, who studies the compounds, known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment — or the human body.

A grim clue, however: The liver responds swiftly to a chemical called PFOA, Peaslee said.

3M made the chemicals PFOA and PFOS until 2000, when it agreed to phase out their production (although it continued making other types of forever chemicals).

“You put any mouse on PFOA for a week and its liver is double the size,” Peaslee said. “You can get these mice that are so overgrown with the liver they can’t move their legs off the ground anymore. It’s terrible. The liver is one of the first things to respond to PFOA.”

Amara’s cancer was first found in her liver. But, “you can only prove correlation typically,” Peaslee said.

After she died, blood was drawn from Amara’s body to test for the chemicals.

Bridge: ‘Cause I feel so misplaced, I’m losing all my faith’

Amara’s mother is an Episcopal priest and her dad is a Catholic liturgical director. Amara was involved with both churches, and was an altar server alongside her grandmother at Guardian Angels.

“Amara straddled the two denominations,” said her father, who helps families plan funerals but didn’t expect to plan his daughter’s.

Amara was blunt about how cancer made her lose faith in God’s goodness, Dana Strande said. Amara won a laptop for an essay in which she ended by questioning how to punish God.

“It was filled with anger,” her mom said. “By no means did our family adopt the idea that God gave her cancer.”

At her funeral, the pastor noted Amara wasn’t afraid to state her opinions, or “to voice her disagreements with church teachings, or pious platitudes.” Nor was she “afraid to be angry with God over the sharp turn her life had taken.”

Amara chose a verse from Matthew to be read at her funeral:

Blessed are the poor in spirit…
Blessed are those who mourn…
Blessed are the peacemakers…
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…

Refrain: ‘I am the outcast, I am the strange’

After each surgery, Amara would have to retrain her voice after being intubated.

Last summer, she auditioned for the Minnesota Chorale — the official choir for the Minnesota Orchestra — using her own music. She didn’t tell them she had cancer; didn’t want special treatment. She made the choir and in early April, she sang — as best she could — at Orchestra Hall.

She wrote and recorded several songs, one of which she finished during her last trip to California. They will be released on Spotify.

Although she rarely talked about dying, the last week-and-a-half of her life, she told her family she felt like she was dying. But she was still talking about going to see singers Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift and her favorite, James Taylor.

Her friend Jesse Flanagan— who’s about to become a certified EMT — was among Amara’s friends with her the night before she died.

“I will start saving lives immediately, but it kills me that I couldn’t save her,” Flanagan  said.

As she described those painful last days, Flanagan’s voice was drowned out by Amara’s supporters at the Capitol chanting,“PFAs are not OK!”

Refrain: ‘You can try to tear me down but know my words will never die’

Amara wanted to testify at the Capitol but didn’t want to do it alone. Her mom is a pastor experienced in public speaking, but was reluctant.

Michael Strande didn’t hesitate. They wrote their speeches and trekked to the Capitol in a van that could transport the wheelchair, and delivered their speeches, one after the other, occasionally joined by other Tartan students and friends.

The legislation is now in a conference committee, where the House and Senate work out their differences.

Seven hundred people attended Amara’s funeral, and 250 more watched online, Dana Strande said.

Amara may be gone, but the work will go on, Dana Strande said: “I’m not going to quit on the things that really mattered to her.”

Amara’s tumors live on, too: Over the past five-and-a-half years, Amara donated tumors from two surgeries to research labs across the U.S., and another 24 tumor fragments after she died. Some of these fragments are in mice, where they are being studied as they continue to grow.

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