In Search Of…Choosing Hope

Holmen's Jenny Olson battles cancer with optimism


When you’re faced with a devastating diagnosis, you can choose to get living or choose to stop living. For Holmen’s Jenny Olson the choice is clear.

“You can look at it and hide under the covers and pretend it’s not happening but then you are missing out on life,” Jenny said.

If you haven’t already guessed from the hat that hides her hair loss, Jenny is battling cancer. A diagnosis that came last year.

“We were just living life like everybody else – and then our whole world got turned upside down,” Jenny said. “I went to the chiropractor and she was pushing on my neck and said, ‘Jenny this just doesn’t feel right. I went to the doctor. He ordered an MRI right away. I was supposed to have an appointment on Friday but he called me that same day and I immediately panicked because you know that’s not good when they call you.”

The MRI revealed a tumor the size of a lemon. The good news, “when we met with the surgeon, they said it was 98-99% benign,” said Jenny’s husband Brian.

It shouldn’t have been malignant – but it was.  “It’s surreal. I don’t even still think I have cancer. It doesn’t even seem real.”

Her type of cancer is usually found in legs and arms. It shouldn’t have been in her neck. But it was. “You can amputate your wrist, leg, elbow. Can’t amputate my neck.”

Doctors removed the tumor in August and were optimistic. Jenny was even able to start her new job as a kindergarten teacher at Viking elementary in Holmen. But the good news didn’t last long.

“Sept. 6th I remember putting my hand up on my neck like this. I was talking to my kindergarteners. And I remember I felt something there. I called my doctor immediately. It had grown back to the same size even a little larger. In a month. And this time it went into my lymph nodes.”

With more treatments coming it was time to tell their two children. “We sat down with them on the couch and they called this the ball in my neck. So we talked about how the ball in my neck was something called cancer and that I’m going to get medicine that’s probably going to make me sick. Right away those little minds, ‘Are you going to die? Are you going to heaven?’ We just said, ‘We don’t know.'”

Jenny went through another surgery and this past January faced a grueling round of radiation. “That was the most horrible time of our lives,” Jenny said. “You’d think it would be chemo but radiation was because of the area. Because of where it was and swallowing it really took at toll on my body. I was so sick and on the couch for two months. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be the spouse. But I have to say he has just been my rock. He never gets mad at me. He just was so patient when I was so sick. You don’t realize how much you love each other until you are really dealt something that dire. You just fall in love with that person all over again.” 

Brian adds, “how we survived that period of time I don’t know.”

But they did survive and got the news they’d been praying for. “It was all gone. We were ecstatic. It was gone.”

The Olson’s 7-year-old daughter Elise remembers everyone hoping, “the cancer in her neck wouldn’t come back, but it did.”

It came back in her her lungs and before they could treat it, the tumors that shouldn’t have ruptured – did.

“Up until then we were still going to a cure,” says Brian.  “And so at that point in time, the chances for a cure are slim to none.”

Cancer has taken so much from Jenny over the past year. “Not teaching kindergarten. I love teaching so much. And I miss my kindergarteners everyday. I know teachers say they love their job but I can’t imagine doing anything else. So to have cancer take that away from you that’s just been just devastating to me.”

But in true Jenny Olson form, there is always a silver lining. “We are so blessed to live where we live and have such wonderful, caring people in our lives. I just have to say the teachers at Viking elementary have been so amazing.  I mean, I only worked there for three weeks. They just kind of took us in. One of the teachers made these t-shirts for us and it just kind of exploded.  People were buying them and wanting to wear them.”

Another group of friends made special necklaces for Elise and Ben engraved with their mom’s fingerprint. “On the back it says ‘forever with you. Love, Mom.’ Each of the children will have that forever.”

Brian says in a strange way, “this has been the best and the worst experience all at the same time.”

No one can predict how much time she has left. “Could be weeks, could be months.”

“But “I’m going to keep going and not say that I have weeks or months I’m going to say that I have years. I think it is still a grave situation but we still have treatment options out there. We’re not to the point where they say enjoy your quality of life. We’re not there yet.”

Jenny Olson has terminal cancer, so she shouldn’t be so positive. But she is. Because when you’re faced with a devastating diagnosis you can choose to get living, or you can choose stop living. Jenny Olson is choosing – hope. 

“I will keep going and trying as long as they tell me I can.”