When Cancer Comes Home

By Beacon Staff

COLUMBIA FALLS – Angie Olsen’s hair has finally grown back.

Last fall, Olsen let her 9-year-old daughter Alison cut it off. Alison had shown a liking for hairstyling, having already cut her younger sister’s hair twice.

“She did a really good job, and then she got to the bangs and just chopped them all the way off,” Olsen said. “I asked her, ‘Why did you do that?’ and she just said, ‘I don’t like bangs.’ I should’ve known – it’s what she did to her sister.”

The impromptu haircut was more than a means to encourage Alison’s early career goals: It was one of the many ways Olsen, her husband Russell and their five children, ages 3 to 14, have coped since she was diagnosed with breast cancer last year.

Angie Olsen turns the pages on a family photo album while receiving drugs intravenously during the final stages of her caner treatment at Glacier Oncology in Kalispell.

“I knew my hair was going to fall out,” Olsen said. “This made it fun, instead of scary.”

Still, from the diagnosis through the surgeries and treatments, Olsen said she’s often wished for a guide – someone or something to help not just her, but also her family, grapple with the disease. With few options locally, she’s creating her own.

Olsen, in conjunction with a national group, Kids Konnected, will host a free family fun night for cancer patients and their immediate family on Dec. 20 from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Kalispell Armory on U.S. Highway 93 North. She is collecting donations in hopes of giving a gift to each child that comes that night, and plans to make the events a regular occurrence.

“It’s not, ‘Let’s sit down in a circle together and cry about cancer,’” Olsen said. “It’s meant to be fun, a chance for them to get together and hang out and just realize there are other families dealing with this too.”

Olsen, 36, was changing her son Dawson’s diaper last fall, while watching a feature on self-breast exams on NBC’s “The Today Show” when, on a whim, she did the check – her first in years. She found a lump. “I was like most anybody under 40, I think,” Olsen, who owns and operates Angie’s Greenhouse in Columbia Falls, said. “I thought I didn’t have to worry about it.”

The months since her diagnosis have been tumultuous. In just over a year, Olsen has undergone a half-dozen surgeries, 90-plus shots for white counts, and more than 54 chemotherapy treatments. Her seventh surgery is scheduled for February.

And while her husband and children aren’t necessarily the ones being poked and prodded, they’re dealing with the disease as much as she is. “It absolutely affects the whole family,” she said.

Nurse Rosemary Peters adjusts Angie Olsen’s IV during her treatment at Glacier Oncology in Kalispell.

While there’s an abundance of resources to learn about medical terms and treatments, when it comes to answering hard questions from your children about your cancer or understanding their reactions, Olson has found there’s a dearth of information.

“The first thing you think about as a parent is ‘OK, how do I tell them?’” Olsen said. “From there on, it feels like you’re flying blind.”

Olsen knows she’s not alone in wishing for help. The handful of other cancer patients she’s met during weekly oncology appointments have dozens of children among them. One of Olsen’s nurses, Janelle Cano, a former breast cancer patient herself, is a member of the board Olsen is forming to lead Flathead Valley Kids Konnected.

“Sometimes I think it affected them more than me,” Cano said of her three children.

But it wasn’t until Olsen received a call from a local school counselor, asking for advice on how to help another cancer patient’s child that she decided to take action. “I went from thinking someone needs to do something about this, to I need to do something.”

Olsen contacted Kids Konnected, a California-based group that links children of cancer patients with kids who have been through it before. Started in 1993 by Jon Wagner-Holtz, then 11, whose mother survived breast cancer, the nonprofit now has 150 volunteers in seven states and has helped thousands of kids. Among Kids Konnected’s programs are support groups, summer camps and gift baskets, including information and teddy bears, which are given to parents when they’re diagnosed.

“This is about helping a sick parent worry less about the emotional stress their illness has on their children, and addressing the needs of those children,” Dave Peters, executive director of Kids Konnected, added.

Shelby Olsen, right, runs through her family’s home as her older sister, Alison Olsen, works on her homework on the floor.

In addition to the family night events, Olsen is working with local doctor’s offices to get her own informational baskets, similar to Kids Konnected’s, to cancer patients with children.

In order to ensure patient confidentiality, a doctor would contact Olsen when they had such a patient, giving her basic information like the age of their children. Olsen would then prepare and deliver a basket with age-appropriate information and blankets made by a local Girl Scout troop for the doctor to pass on.

“There are a few sources for help in the state,” she said, “but none of them are going to contact you and you don’t necessarily have time to search for them. This puts help in their hands almost immediately.”

She also hopes to send some Flathead children to Kids Konnected camps, where they can work with professional therapists and learn to be mentors for other kids. The camps are free, except for the cost of transportation, so Olsen is also seeking donations to help with that expense.

Overall, she says the Kids Konnected project has become “a positive among the negative” in her disease.

“It’s late for my family – I look at this information now and think ‘Oh, that’s why my kids acted that way,’” she said. “But it will be there for others now, and that’s a good thing.”

For more information on Flathead Valley Kids Konnected call Angie Olsen at (406) 253-7888. Three Rivers Bank, located at 552 N. Meridian Rd. and 233 E. Idaho St. in Kalispell, is accepting donations under an account named Flathead Valley Kids Konnected.