Oregonian Article – 7 years later, she’s checking a few more things off her list.
by By Margie Boule (The Oregonian): 503-221-8450; [email protected]
Sunday, June 8, 2003
It had been a big decision to go back. I thought about quitting for about five seconds. And then I thought, no. I can’t drop out, because getting my degree is really important to me. BECKY OLSON ON CONTINUING HER COLLEGE EDUCATION
Even before her diagnosis, most people would have called Becky Olson a superwoman. Mother of five, wife to Bill, full-time saleswoman at QwestDex Yellow Pages, Becky says she’d always been driven to succeed.
She thought she knew what she wanted: to make a lot of money, to sell the most ads at work, to raise strong and happy children.
Then she got cancer. “My life changed forever that day,” she says.
Within weeks of her diagnosis, seven years ago, Becky wrote a list: “What I Want To Do or Have Before I Die.” This week Becky will check off some of the most important items on that list.
“The day of my diagnosis I scheduled my mammogram first thing, so it wouldn’t interfere with work appointments,” Becky says. She’d been working full time since she was 18. “Work was really important. I’m very competitive. I was always checking the list of numbers on the wall. If my name was at the top, I was happy.”
Becky missed all her appointments that day in 1996. “They did three mammograms and finally took me for an ultrasound.” Becky looked at the screen, “and I knew . . . it was cancer. It looked like a scorpion with legs attached. It was ugly. It looked like an alien, and I wanted it out.”
The cancer had spread to Becky’s lymph nodes. “The initial prognosis was very ominous,” says Becky’s husband, Bill Olson. “It was life-threatening. Our entire family was shocked.” Becky was only 43; her three youngest were still at home.
Becky’s “sentence,” as she puts it, “included three surgeries, six weeks of daily radiation, nine months of chemotherapy.”
But before her treatment even began, Becky faced an important decision. Two months before, she’d enrolled at Marylhurst University to finish a degree she’d started 32 years before.
“It had been a big decision to go back,” Becky says. “I thought about quitting for about five seconds. And then I thought, no. I can’t drop out, because getting my degree is really important to me.”
Becky took a leave of absence from work but kept up her studies. At first, sick and weak from chemo, bald and self-conscious, she studied at home. With permission, Becky’s friend and fellow student Sharon Pickthorn — who also works at QwestDex — attended classes and shared notes with Becky at home in the evenings.
Soon after her diagnosis, Becky began doing research about breast cancer. “I found an article by a woman faced with cancer who came up with a list of things important to her. I thought, that makes sense. So I sat down and made a list. Right at the top, without hesitating, I put, ‘Get my degree.’ “
Becky added nine other wishes. “I put some long-term ones on there; I didn’t want them all to be things I could do in a week. If they were all done, there would be no reason to keep going.”
“Sing lead with a band,” Becky wrote. “Visit Alaska,” where she was born but could not remember seeing. “Take singing lessons.” “Have a library room in my home.” “Go to Italy.” “Publish a book.”
Finally, envisioning her graduation day, Becky wrote, “Speak at my college graduation.”
Becky surveyed her list. “What was funny was, there was nothing on my list about making a million dollars. That used to be important to me. Nothing on the list was about making a lot of money.”
Becky didn’t know how much time she had, so she attacked her list. She took singing lessons. She and Bill visited Alaska. And she kept taking classes.
When Becky began getting better, and doctors lessened her dose of chemo, she returned to work. But she kept her list close at hand.
With the help of Marylhurst professor Lucy Z. Martin, Becky and her friend Sharon laid out a plan for a nonprofit support organization they call “Breast Friends.” “Our mission,” Sharon says, “is to help women survive the trauma of breast cancer, one friend at a time” (their Web site is www.breastfriendsonline.org).
Another professor, Dr. Elizabeth Watzke, encouraged Becky to turn an anecdote about a critical moment in her cancer recovery into a book. “When I was going through chemo and bald as a billiard ball, I didn’t want to go anywhere. I didn’t like people feeling sorry for me.”
A friend’s husband gave Becky a hat that said across the front “No Hair Day.” “My throat got kind of tight and I started to blush.” Becky ran in the bathroom, pulled a scarf off her head, and put on her hat. “All of a sudden my life turned completely around. Suddenly I was able to laugh at my circumstances. I looked at myself in the mirror and was able to smile at my reflection.”
She calls it “the hat that saved my life.” She hopes to publish her book next fall.
For seven years, Becky has plugged away at her goals. Daughter Beth says, “My brother and I always tease her, because she gets amazing grades. When she gets an A-minus she gets bummed out. We say, ‘Mom, an A-minus is awesome.’ But I think it rubbed off on us. When you’re young you go to school because you have to. When you see your parent go back and really want to excel, you see how much more important it is than just getting by.”
This spring, with graduation approaching, Becky asked her counselor to submit her name as a graduation speaker. She heard nothing until last Friday, when she got a phone call from Marylhurst. She’d been selected to speak at graduation this Saturday.
Becky has written countless drafts of her speech. Bill has no doubt it will be well-received. “She has a gift for touching lives through her speaking and through her eyes,” he says.
Becky has been cancer-free for years now, and most of her goals have been accomplished. But her list will not be retired, she says. “I’m going to add a couple more things, so I have more to look forward to,” she says. “As I cross off a couple, I add a couple more. I’m thinking of getting my master’s degree next.”
She’s dropped a few items from the list, like the new house with a Jacuzzi tub. “It’s lost its appeal,” she says. But she’s buying bookcases for that library room, and she’ll gladly show you photographs from her trip to Italy.
Becky thinks her list helped her recover from cancer. “I think when you’re going through a life-threatening disease like that, you can dwell on the disease, or find something to look forward to, as difficult as that is.”
Saturday, Becky will stand before a large audience and share her story at graduation. Then she’ll collect her diploma.
And later that night, at her graduation party, Becky Olson will climb on the stage and sing lead with the band. Add another check mark to her wish list.