Oregon woman keeps running despite brain tumor

BEND, Ore. (AP) — In the cool of a red-sun morning, Johanna Olson ran effortlessly through Farewell Bend Park, legs floating as if unshackled from gravity.

The Bend resident stopped, all lean limbs and toothy grin. She drew laughs by announcing in mock diva-style that any photos had better show off her best side. Then she chatted brightly about all she's been up to — a 21-mile run for her marathon training, a five-day camp in California where she learned to surf.

Out here is where Olson, 33, feels her best. Here it's just the rhythm of her breath, her mind unburdened by what's happening in her head.

"It sounds so cheesy," she said, "but running is the one thing in my life that's always there and always good."

A tenacious tumor lurks inside Olson's brain, a shadow that has stalked her since she was 18 years old.

It first made itself known when Olson was in her first season as a star cross country runner at Luther College in Iowa. Over the course of two years, she had a brain surgery and a round of radiation treatments.

Her good health returned, Olson quickly racked up cross country accolades such as league MVP, seven-time All-American and, finally in 2000, NCAA Division III women's individual cross country champion. After college, she twice competed in the U.S. Olympic trials.

But in 2009, after more than a decade of quiet, Olson's annual CT scan showed the tumor had returned.

Since then it's been a journey of treatments and surgery and doctors. She regularly feels tired, her once muscular body now so thin. She will find out in mid-October if the latest treatment — a drug meant to arrest the tumor's growth — is working, and what comes next.

Not that all of this is Olson's focus. Instead, she's looking ahead to the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon on Oct. 7 in Minnesota.

Olson and her sister, Marney, grew up in Wadena, Minn., a town of fewer than 5,000 people. Her parents were runners, and her father, Terry Olson, was her cross country and track coach.

Olson recalls that she just loved to run. She did her first 5K at age 8. During summer tennis lessons, she would get bored.

"I would just go run around instead," she said.

It soon became apparent that Olson had talent. Jane Bagstad, who at 61 is running the coming marathon with her daughter, joked, "It's probably the only time in my life I will get to run with her. She's so fast, she was beating us by junior high."

"I used to bike with her while she was running," she continued. "And I thought I was exercising."

While Olson always loved to race, her father said it wasn't about beating the competition. She remained humble and encouraging with others.

"I know I'm the parent, but she's a special kind of person, a special kind of runner that people like to be around," Terry Olson said. "She's a really nice person who cares about other people. She also tries her best in whatever she does. And I think people respect that."

The turn in her health came on fast.

One day she started seeing spots. She couldn't see well enough in class to take notes later that same day. Then came headaches.

She went to a hospital. After a CT scan, doctors advised her to quickly get to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Specialists operated on the tumor by the end of the week.

Even today, doctors don't know why she has it, and say it had probably been slowly growing for years before the day she began seeing spots.

They also told her the tumor would someday come back.

Dr. Stephen Kornfeld, Olson's attending physician at St. Charles Cancer Center in Bend, said brain tumors always return.

"It can be — and in Johanna's case it has been — managed like a chronic illness," he said. "But ultimately, brain tumors are incurable."

After graduation, Olson headed west. She wanted to train at a higher elevation for the 2004 Olympic trials and fell for the beauty and charm of Ketchum, Idaho, home of Sun Valley.

She quickly met Angenie McCleary, who would become a close friend. Their first encounter was during a steep trail race in Idaho.

McCleary said in such a small community, she was curious about who the new girl was at the starting line. Then, McCleary said, she was leading the race when a whirl of white-blond hair passed her at the top of a hill.

"She was really running," McCleary said. "I tried my hardest to keep up with her and I ended up coming in second behind her."

At that point, McCleary said, cancer was part of Olson's backstory but rarely came up as part of her present.

"She's never been focused on having a brain tumor," McCleary said. "She's had to experience the reality of it and has to deal with it on a daily basis, but she continues to live life."

Olson qualified for and competed in both the 2004 and 2008 Olympic marathon trials. She didn't make the team but was still considered among the best distance runners out there. Even today, Olson is sponsored by Brooks, the running shoe and gear brand.

In that decade of respite from cancer, Olson moved regularly, from Ketchum to Spokane and — to get a master's degree in exercise and sports science — Corvallis.

She returned once a year to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for an annual CT scan. It was the only time of year she got anxious. For years, it was clean.

Then in 2009, the scan showed what doctors had predicted long ago: The tumor was back.

It prompted a second surgery, plus time recuperating in Minnesota. The surgery also showed that the tumor was now more virulent.

"I hoped I would have at least another five years," Olson said. "I hoped that it would be gone again for a while."

With that mind-set, she left home for Bend in 2010 to take a job in Central Oregon Community College's Exercise Physiology Lab. She immediately worked to connect with local runners.

Bend resident Kari Strang, who will travel to the Minnesota marathon, said one of the first days they spent much time together was at the Peterson Ridge Rumble, an annual trail race outside Sisters.

Before the race, Olson pinned to her bib Flat Stanley, a roughly 8-by-14-inch paper doll of the beloved children's character. Her cousin's daughter had sent it to her so Flat Stanley could have new experiences, like a traveling gnome. She ran with it for 20 miles.

Strang said she had been nervous about what would be her first long trail race, but by the time the start came around, Olson's antics with Flat Stanley had her laughing.

"She's thoughtful of others and helps keep the focus on the positive in any situation," Strang said. "I don't think she realizes how much she's giving to other people's lives."

The calm after the second surgery only lasted 14 months. Olson underwent a third surgery in September 2011.

This time, Olson said, surgeons took more healthy brain tissue out, trying to remove microscopic cancer cells.

The surgery left Olson without much peripheral vision, particularly on her right side. At the same time, post- surgery oral chemotherapy drugs made her weak.

The news has been tough in the past year. Six months into chemotherapy, Olson's white blood cell and platelet counts dropped to the point that doctors said she had to give her body a break.

In August, Olson learned that within two months of stopping the chemo, the tumor doubled in size.

Olson has started another treatment since. It isn't chemotherapy. Rather, it's a drug geared toward keeping blood vessels from feeding the tumor. She will learn in several weeks if it's working.

Since the tumor growth, Olson has noticed changes. Nothing that a new acquaintance would notice: A slight pause here, a forgotten phone number there. But a regular conversation can now take a lot of energy. She forgets a word and then searches in her mind for a way around it.

Throughout it all, Dr. Kornfeld said he has admired Olson's optimism and resilience. It's so important, he noted, for patients not to let fear poison their daily lives.

"She's such a cool kid," he said. "She certainly embodies that idea to live in the present."

Olson isn't working now, nor is she able to drive. She is grateful to her family, friends, COCC and the running community for standing behind her.

"I sometimes get overwhelmed by the kindness of people," she said. "I've gotten such incredible support in Bend."

She said she does experience some fear. Mainly, it's about what her illness means for others. She doesn't want to burden anyone, and she values her independence.

She hopes to run the Twin Cities Marathon in about five hours, alongside her parents. There will be a party afterward, with a musician friend traveling from Portland to perform.

Maybe, she said, her race will inspire someone.

"I just want people to realize they're so lucky," she said, "and to be grateful."


Information from: The Bulletin, http://www.bendbulletin.com

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press