BALMORAL, Man. - Janis Ollson's cancer called for radical treatment: surgeons cut her skeletal structure in half, removed a leg and part of her pelvis, and put her back together again. Then she had to learn to get around with a wheelchair, crutches and prosthetics. All this while raising two small children and fielding calls from reporters around the world who want to talk to the "cut-in-half" woman.
It's an ordeal that could sour anyone, but Ollson has used her love of family to see the silver lining. "I heard a statistic that one in four (people) will get cancer, and me and my husband and my two children are four, so that's how I put it into perspective," Ollson said this week at her home north of Winnipeg. "If somebody floated down from heaven and said to me, 'OK, it has to be one of you four, who's it going to be?' in a heartbeat it would have been me. I just couldn't have dealt the same with it being my children or my husband."
"It was actually easier for me ... to deal with it being me than being somebody else."
Ollson also realizes that her story, which was recently featured on NBC's "Today Show," may inspire other people battling cancer.
Her world seemed perfect three years ago. At 28, she had a young daughter and was pregnant with a son. It was the two-child family she and her husband Daryl had always dreamed of having.Â Â She developed back pain, something she initially ascribed to her pregnancy. But it became more severe. Even with painkillers, she couldn't sleep at night. Her doctor had her tested and came back with shocking news â€” Ollson had a large cancerous tumour on her pelvic bone.
"I said, 'Cancer? Like, cancer-cancer? The bad cancer?'" Ollson recalled. "For a few seconds I was OK and then I just started to cry and it just slowly started to sink in."
Getting at and removing the cancerous mass was challenging enough. It would involve removing the left half of Ollson's pelvis, her left leg and part of her backbone.Â Â But putting her back together would require an experimental procedure called a 'pogo stick' rebuild.Â Â With Ollson's pelvis completely severed from her spinal cord, part of the bone from her amputated leg would be reshaped and used to fuse her remaining leg to her upper body.
Ollson agreed to undergo the procedure at The Mayo Clinic in the United States, knowing that when she woke up she would be in a bed or wheelchair with young children to care for.
"I just kept envisioning all the things that I wouldn't be able to do, and trying to push that out of my head," she said. "I really had no idea if I would be ... on bedrest, sitting there like a statue in my house."
In all, Ollson underwent more than 20 hours of surgery. When she awoke to her new reality, doctors had removed the cancerous mass â€” and more â€” and a long road of rehabilitation lay ahead.
It was her children that made her determined to regain mobility. "When you have young children, you don't have the option of just lying in bed all day. You have to get up and do things. They want you to reach something or grab something or come down on the floor," she said. "And it definitely was difficult. I remember a time when I would put my leg on the floor and then try to lift my upper body over it, and it was literally just a noodle. It would just collapse under me."
It took a year for Ollson to balance on crutches, but her persistence paid off. She developed strength and agility and now gets around very well. She uses her wheelchair or crutches or will "scootch" around on her behind to climb stairs. She is an active mom and has re-engaged in such hobbies as snowmobiling.
There are a few small things she cannot do â€” reminders of her former life.Â Â "I actually saw a video the other day that brought me to tears. It was me and my daughter in the kitchen and I was just walking beside her and holding her hand, and that I can't do. When I move, I have to have my hands on the wheelchair ... I don't actually feel their hand."
Ollson has turned her experience into a story for others. She recently spoke about cancer research at her daughter's school and has been willing to set aside time in her busy mother's schedule to talk to reporters.
"Although it's a tragic situation, so much positivity has come of it. I believe that we have encouraged and inspired a lot of people ... and all those positive things might not have happened if this wouldn't have happened to me," she said.
"I'm very content with the spot I am in in my life."