Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Cut in half, her life is now full

Cancer survivor going to school to be a teacher

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The Manitoba cancer survivor whose story about being cut in half made headlines around the world may have a thing or two to teach people.

So she's going back to school to become a teacher.

"I feel I've been able to motivate people and support people," said Janis Ollson, 33. "I thought I'd really enjoy being able to do that more. Being a teacher would be the perfect way to do that," said the Balmoral woman, who commutes to classes in Winnipeg.

Ollson was the first person surgeons cut in half, removed much of a cancerous midsection, then put back together with a "pogo stick" rebuild.

She has been cancer-free for five years.

When her story appeared in the Free Press and online two years ago, it went viral. She and her husband, Daryl, daughter, Braxtyn, and son, Leiland, were flown to New York to be on NBC's Today show. People magazine and media as far away as Japan picked up the story.

"It was a fun experience," said Ollson. "That was the extent of it. It wasn't like superstardom."

On Friday, she was at her children's school in Balmoral (student population: 96) to talk about the Terry Fox Run and how funds raised for cancer research are keeping people like her alive.

Balmoral is about 50 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

"The Terry Fox Run is important to me because of my situation," Ollson said. Raising money for research is vital to the woman who had her life-saving surgery in the United States. "It all goes together. My surgery was invented for me through research dollars that allowed my surgeon to take time away from his practice to invent in a lab.

"If it wasn't for the dollars for research, my surgery wouldn't have happened. They would've said, 'There's nothing we can do for you.' That's significant to me."

Ollson was pregnant with her second child when she got the news the chronic pain in her back was chondrosarcoma. Chemotherapy and radiation couldn't help. The cancer had spread through several bones, her pelvis, lower spine and into a lot of muscle tissue. Her only chance for survival was to remove it. She saw specialists in Winnipeg and Toronto, then had the surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Manitoba Health covered Ollson's expenses.

Her first surgery to remove the cancer -- her leg, part of her pelvis and lower spine -- took 20 hours, 12 specialists and 20 units of blood. A second surgery, to put her back together, took eight hours and more than 240 staples. Ollson became the first person to receive a "pogo stick" rebuild, with her one good leg fused to her body close to her centre, with the reshaped bone from the amputated leg.

She gave birth to Leiland before her surgery.

"When he was a baby, I said I needed to learn to walk before him," she said.

By the time he took his first steps at a year old, she was mobile. When Leiland started school, she planned on going back to work or furthering her education. Mission accomplished.

She's working toward a bachelor of education degree through a joint program at the University of Winnipeg and Red River College. In five years, she'll have a business and technology teaching diploma. With credits she already has for a business administration diploma and accounting certification, Ollson hopes she can finish the program sooner and start teaching high school.

"I do think the experience I will bring into the classroom will help me," she said. "Maybe my own life experiences will be able to translate into the content I'm teaching."

For now, she's learning how to get to class.

"There's certainly challenges, especially at the U of W," she said. The older buildings have a lot of stairs, said Ollson who praised the new science building. "It's great for accessibility."

It's difficult to find parking with wheelchair-accessible entrances "but, overall, I get around," said the mom who's volunteered as a chaperone on her kids' school field trips. "The last one was on a farm."

There were challenges to getting around through the hay and mud and in and out of the barn, she said. "I might have to do it differently, but barriers don't stop me."

Ollson said she's shared her story with kids at the school so it's no mystery and there's no fear -- "so my situation doesn't end up affecting my kids in a negative way."

Those who can't see past a disability usually don't know any better, she said.

"A lot of those opinions come from a lack of knowledge," she said. "You don't know; you assume those opinions."

A parent and educator in the Winnipeg School Division who's read about Ollson looks forward to the day she starts teaching.

"Her 'can-do' attitude will be infectious, encouraging students and staff alike to focus on their abilities, never counting themselves out of anything they are wanting to do or pursue," said Andrea Powell. "We couldn't ask for a better role model for our children."

 

The Terry Fox Run is this Sunday. In Winnipeg, registration at Assiniboine Park is at 9 a.m., with the run starting at 9:30 a.m. For a list of runs around Manitoba, go to www.terryfox.org/Run/Manitoba.html

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

video player to use on WFP

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 15, 2012 A3

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Updated on Saturday, September 15, 2012 at 8:24 AM CDT: adds video

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