Taking on cancer, armed with a smile

Olson set to take part in Terry Fox run September 16 after being diagnosed with cancer in January

Joanne Olson

Joanne Olson

Few have left their stamp on a nation’s conscience like Terry Fox. His legacy is interwoven into the fabric of Canadian society.

And on the second Sunday after Labour Day, Canadians from coast to coast gather in parks and along streets and run to raise millions in cancer research in his memory.

Every year familiar faces gather and share inspirational stories of hope, struggle, survival and loss. Inevitably, new faces take the place of those whose fight is over.

As participants and volunteers make their way to the soccer fields at the Hammond Community Centre Sunday, Sept. 16 in Maple Ridge, one of the faces in the crowd will be one of cancer’s latest recruits.

Joanne Olson, executive director of the Friends In Need Food Bank in Maple Ridge, will line-up with hundreds of others to ensure that while she battling ovarian cancer, her struggle will not be silent.

“If you asked me a year ago, no, this isn’t where I thought I would be,” says Olson, 50.

It was shortly after Christmas last year when she made an appointment with her doctor. The holiday season had come to an end and she felt bloated.

“I thought it was normal. I’m 50 years old and menopausal. But there’s no real sign. I thought I was gaining weight. I just attributed it to all the good food over Christmas – the turkey, and short bread, and ice cream.”

Olson was also struggling with fatigue. However, the Christmas season at the food bank is its busiest time, so she expected her strength to be zapped.

For the past year, her father-in-law had been living with Olson and her husband Dan, who’s been battling bone cancer for seven years.

Two days after her father-in-law passed away in late January, Olson was given her own diagnosis of ovarian cancer. She struggled to comprehend what she faced.

“It was pretty scary. The first thing you think of is, ‘well, this is it.’ You hear all the horror stories of what chemo is going to be like,” recalls Olson, as friends and family offered opinions, whether solicited or not.

But she says she quickly pushed her fear aside and faced her reality. Three weeks of chemotherapy, then surgery, rest, and three more weeks of chemotherapy. Olson found the treatment was half as bad as the advice. She also drew strength from her own job.

Working at the Friends in Need Food Bank, Olson comes face-to-face with families in dire straights. Yet so many who walk through the Maple Ridge food bank doors keep their attitude well above the line that defines their economic status.

“You see people who come here and are really sick or desperate, but they’re happy . It’s hard to be down when you see other people that could be in worse shape than you, but they aren’t,”  Olson says.

With her prognosis in hand, she took the one sage piece of advice she was given by everyone who offered their opinion – be positive.

“I said to my husband, to put it bluntly, ‘that if I am going to die, I’m not going to die being miserable. I’m going to go forward and live life as normal as possible and be happy.’”

Olson also draws strength from the advances made in treating ovarian cancer, thanks in large part to the work of the Terry Fox Foundation.

Since Fox first stuck his artificial limb in the Atlantic Ocean off of St. John’s, N.L. on April 12, 1980, his dream to raise funds and awareness for cancer research has transformed the lives of not just Canadians, but cancer patients worldwide. His goal to raise $1 million on his cross-country run was quickly surpassed.

While cancer forced Fox to abandon his run after 143 days and 5,373 kilometres, the fight was far from over. By February of 1981, the Marathon of Hope had raised more than $24 million.

To date, more than $600 million has been raised through the Fox’s Marathon of Hope and the subsequent annual Terry Fox Run. For a foundation so large, one of its crowning achievements is its ability to fund a majority of what it raises on what it preaches – research.  The foundation directs 84 cents of every dollar raised towards research , and funded 1,180 cancer projects to date. Last fiscal year the foundation spent $27.5 million on cancer research programs.

That’s why Olson said she wanted to be part of the Terry Fox Run. It’s the dedication to research that allows her to know that what was true about ovarian cancer five years ago is old news.

With the help of the Terry Fox Foundation, the scales continually tip in her favor.  While more than 2,600 cases are diagnosed each year in Canada and an estimated 1,750 die as a result, Olson uses the inspiration of one of Canada’s greatest citizens. She says she’s humbled to be able to attach her name to the annual run.

“That one person could bring that kind awareness to the world – not just Canadians, but Americans and Europeans and every where else – is incredible. Everyone knows who Terry Fox is. There are a lot of young people who at that age would have just caved. They would have been so scared and didn’t know what to do.”

But Fox did the opposite. Instead of feeling sorry for himself, he decided to turn what he saw as a lack of funding and exposed a light on the subject. It’s that example Olson draws the most inspiration from. And it’s why she intends on winning the fight.

“I don’t plan on dying.”


Terry Fox Run

Terry Fox Run, Sunday, Sept. 16, 2012 at the Hammond Community Centre soccer field at 20601 Westfield Avenue, Maple Ridge.

• Registration: 8:30 a.m.

• Run Start: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

• 10 km, 5 km, 1 km.

• Open to runners, walkers, bikes, wheelchairs/strollers and rollerblades and dogs on leash are welcome.


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