Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Young mom's grace is the real miracle

Thriving after body was cut in half to remove tumour

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The media love a good news story -- especially a "miracle."

If the spotlight shines on it too brightly for too long, people often get burned by the public exposure. If not, the story eventually loses its lustre. But not always.

In 2010, Janis Ollson's story in the Free Press touched people around the world as it went viral. They called her the "miracle mom" when she appeared on U.S. TV networks.

Ollson, from Balmoral, Man., was in essence cut in half to remove a cancerous tumour. Doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., removed her leg, lower spine and half her pelvis in the life-saving surgery. She became the first person to receive a "pogo-stick" rebuild, with her one remaining leg fused to her body with the reshaped bone from the amputated leg.

She and her family have returned to their hometown north of Winnipeg.

The miracle wasn't just in her surviving, it was the way she was thriving.

"Where we live, we use ATVs and snowmobiles. I use my ATV to take my daughter to school... There really isn't a whole lot that stops me," she said three years after being diagnosed with the cancer. "I don't like to be left out."

Upbeat and energetic, she became a symbol of hope for people with similar cancer and their loved ones. Her story stayed in circulation for months and months. People from Europe to Australia to Mississippi wrote the Free Press trying to contact her.

I forwarded their emails to Ollson, not sure how she could find the time to respond to them with two young kids, a husband and recovery to think about.

When TV producers from New York and Japan were calling for her contact information, I didn't tell them her number was listed in the phone directory -- which is how I got in touch with her. I emailed their requests to Ollson, thinking that would be more manageable than having her phone ringing day and night.

I didn't phone her, either, thinking she had enough reporter types to deal with. Over the next two years, when people found her story online, they'd contact the Free Press to find out how to contact her. I'd forward their emails to Ollson, never hearing back from her. I wondered if her cancer had returned but was afraid of what the answer might be if I asked.

This summer, I got my answer. The Mayo Clinic contacted me to say Ollson was given a clean bill of health. She was cancer-free for five years and happy to share the news.

When I called Ollson to congratulate her, I asked if there was any fallout from being the media's "miracle mom." There was none. She was happy to respond to all the emails from strangers around the world.

With both of her kids now school-age, she is going back to school to become a teacher.

"Maybe my own life experiences will be able to translate into the content I'm teaching." She would never describe herself as "miracle mom."

"I certainly don't feel like my choices are anything special."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 26, 2012 B6


Updated on Wednesday, December 26, 2012 at 10:15 AM CST: Updates picture.

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