Four Cancers In 30 Years: This Man’s A Survivor

Getting diagnosed with cancer is an experience no-one wants to have. One Huntsville professor had to go through it four times — not counting numerous recurrences.


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June is National Cancer Survivors Month. You could almost say this month is dedicated to Dr. James Olson, a history professor at Sam Houston State University. Olson has been diagnosed with four different cancers since 1981.

The first one was a sarcoma in his left hand, which eventually led to the amputation of his forearm after the tumor came back in 1984, ‘85 and ‘87. Seven years later, he had a skin cancer removed. In 2001, he was diagnosed with brain cancer and underwent surgery and chemotherapy. That cancer came back as well a few years later.

And to top it all off, Olson had to battle prostate cancer three years ago.

It sounds like a horror story but the most important part is, Olson is still alive. Why? Olson isn’t sure himself.

“I think I’ve gotten the cancer because I’m prone to it. I guess I survived it in part because maybe somehow — I don’t know — my body manages it a little better. That’s not a very specific response, but I don’t know the answer anyway.”

Olson also credits the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston for his survival and has authored a book about its history.

Doctor Pamela Schlembach treated Olson for his brain cancer in 2005 at MD Anderson’s Regional Care Center in The Woodlands. She says Olson’s story is not unique, but it’s very rare.

“We do see things a lot more frequently than just your average community oncologist. Typically, patients can… you know, what we see is sometimes they can have two cancers. But to actually have three – and they’re very, very different cancers, is not common.”

Needless to say, Olson is a pretty frequent guest at MD Anderson. He’s gone back for check-ups about every four months since his first cancer diagnosis in 1981.

Today, he lives with a tumor still in his brain. It can’t be removed but it’s currently stable. Olson says that constant emotional up-and-down is hard to get used to.

“It used to be, when I’d get within two or three or a week of the next check-up, I’d start getting preoccupied and worried about it, maybe a little morose about it, and then go there, have the tests, everything is fine, the tumor hasn’t come back or hasn’t grown. And you walk out of that hospital kind of floated out, feeling really good, and then you go through the whole thing again four months later.”

What he has learned from more than 30 years of experience with cancers and what he offers as advice to those who are newly diagnosed, is firstly not to deny that you have cancer, and secondly see it as a challenge, not a death sentence, and live life to the fullest.

He points to himself as an example for how the disease can be overcome.

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