Alyson Woloshyn had a new position at the University of Calgary, one that challenged and invigorated her, as the director of a student service centre. She had found the love of her life, optometrist Jared Long, and moved to the city with him from Ontario in 2003. They led healthy, active lives and, as eager skiers, the pair relished the chance to live close to the Rockies.
But in the fall of 2008, then-32-year-old Woloshyn started watching TV – lots of TV.
“I fell into a funk,” she says. “I was bored all the time – apathetic and depressed.” To Long, who was used to sharing his life with the vivacious go-getter he had coaxed to Alberta from Kitchener, the change was creeping but clear. “When he said anything about it, I blamed it on the stress of my job,” Woloshyn says.
In February, Woloshyn stirred herself to go skiing with friends and suffered a bout of vertigo at the top of a hill. It was a particularly steep hill so she brushed the vertigo off. But throughout the winter and early spring, she was visited by occasional dizziness.
In March, the headaches started. Over the next few weeks, they grew in frequency and intensity, causing her to miss work. “You never get headaches,” Long told her. “Go see your doctor.”
“I did, and my blood work was fine,” Woloshyn says. The weather had recently been changeable and Calgary is famous for its migraine-inducing Chinooks. “My doctor wanted to wait until the weather stabilized and then look into it.” She went home and suffered a deepening headache for the better part of the next three days before dragging herself to a walk-in clinic. The doctor there referred her for an out-patient CT, which could take some time.
On Thursday morning of that week, a staff member came into her office, took one look at her and sent her home to get some rest before a scheduled Monday trip to Kelowna. More tired and headachy than sick, Woloshyn went to a scheduled massage and haircut the next day. Sitting in the salon chair at Swizzlestix, she fell asleep twice.
“When I got home I fell into bed,” she says. “A couple of hours later I asked Jared to get me a bucket and I started throwing up. He said, ‘That’s it.’ We got into the car and he took me to the emergency room at Foothills Hospital.” Long went to park the car and by the time he got back, Woloshyn had been triaged and had seen a doctor, who arranged for a CT scan.
The scan revealed a seven-centimetre growth in her brain. Odds were good that it wasn’t cancer. Woloshyn sailed through brain surgery and was discharged a few days later. “This is how naive I was: I’d called my boss and said that I needed a few days off work,” she says. “When they called me for my follow-up appointment three days later, I figured they would tell me it wasn’t cancer – that I’d be out in 20 minutes.”
That appointment lasted three hours. Woloshyn was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a rare brain cancer. “There are four grades and mine is a Grade 4, the most severe,” she explains, her voice unwavering. “It has fingered into my brain and it’s difficult for surgeons to tell what’s brain and what’s tumour.”
Woloshyn, Long and her parents attended the appointment. “I can’t say enough about the care we received,” Woloshyn says. “They had all the resources there for us, and a full layout of a treatment plan.” She received radiation five times a week for six weeks concurrently with low-dose chemotherapy. For the next year, she used a new drug, Temodol, in a treatment regimen that was pioneered in part at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, funded in part by the Alberta Cancer Foundation.
Green light: Alyson Woloshyn, far right, at a University of Calgary event with former CEO Linda Michelson and University of Calgary president Dr. Elizabeth Cannon
Today, Alyson Woloshyn’s health is good. She does everything she can to maintain an anti-cancer lifestyle, including working with a naturopath, as well as her oncologist and other medical staff. She recently returned to a new position at the University of Calgary. The future, while shorter than she had hoped – “I hope to live another five or 10 years” – still looks bright to her.
Clearly, her diagnosis was life-altering. And who would blame her if she opted to focus exclusively on her own health? But for Woloshyn, the change was a watershed that spurred her on to do better and be more.
“I’ve always believed that you need to put more in than you take out,” she says. “When I looked for ways I could help, it didn’t take long to find the Alberta Cancer Foundation.” She speaks at events to help the organization raise money for research and treatment, and plans to donate to the organization part of the income from a self-published book about her journey. “I hope that through my example, others will also look to donate their time and money and put a little back.” She has received the maximum treatment available for brain cancer – there is nothing else. She hopes future patients in her position will have more options.
She says she has the skill set that could allow her to make an impact: event planning, organization and motivational speaking. All she needed was the impetus to bring it all together. Unfortunately, that came in the form of glioblastoma. She started a blog at http://alysonwoloshyn.com/, at first to update friends on her condition, and then to inspire people to give back. Her enthusiasm is remarkable. She writes: “I may not have chosen this path, but I choose to use the journey to make a significant difference.”