Brain cancer gives life new meaning

Meeting Alyson Woloshyn, you would never guess she has brain cancer.

 The 35-year-old grew up in Kitchener, Ont., and moved to Calgary with the love of her life, Jared Long. Woloshyn talks with her hands and casually brushes her curly brown hair out of her eyes. Her enthusiastic and infectious smile can brighten anyone's day.

At age 32, Woloshyn was diagnosed with brain cancer after months of depression and increasingly agonizing headaches. The news got worse; hers was glioblastoma multiforme, an incurable form of cancer.

In the early stages of her symptoms, she played it off as poor diet and lack of exercise. Woloshyn decided to book sessions with a personal trainer, and volunteered with the Calgary Stampede. The headaches began in early 2009.

"At first they were subtle, they weren't enough for me to miss work, but on the weekends, I just laid on the couch," Woloshyn said. "They got progressively worse and worse."

Woloshyn was frequently late for work as the manager of enrolment services at the University of Calgary, and the pain escalated to the point where she could not attend on a regular basis.

Jared Long, Woloshyn's partner of 10 years, encouraged her to see her family doctor. Her family doctor said it was migraines, due to the extreme temperature changes that Calgary experiences.

On April 23, 2009, Woloshyn began vomiting as a result of the pain in her head. Long could see that she was not well, and told her that they were going to the hospital.

"I fought him. I was like, 'I don't want to be the person clogging up emergency with a migraine,'" Woloshyn recounted. "I sat there for 30 minutes. He said, 'You can either get dressed, or I'm going to pick you up and take you like that. We're going.'"

The source of her many months of headaches and depression was an almost seven-centimetre tumour in her right frontal lobe.

"To be honest, I felt relief," she said with a smile. "Because to me, all the days in bed, and the days I called in sick to work — OK, so there is something wrong with me."

Woloshyn was admitted that night, with brain surgery one week later. On Thursday, May 7, Woloshyn and Long — along with her parents who had flown in from Kitchener, Ont. — waited for the results of her surgery in the Tom Baker Cancer Centre.

"I remember Dr. Lim saying, 'You have a glioblastoma. It's an incurable form of cancer, it's fingered into your brain, and it cannot be operated on. But we have a treatment plan,'" she said.

Woloshyn's treatment included 15 months of radiation and chemotherapy, following her April 2009 surgery. Almost immediately after her surgery, Woloshyn took an active stance on her diet and exercise. "When I went out for runs, it was a personal run against my tumour," she said.

Coming to terms with her own mortality proved to be a motivator for Woloshyn. As news of her diagnosis spread, family and friends stepped forward to offer their help. The response was overwhelming for both Woloshyn and Long.

"I would wake up every morning and have 25 or 30 Facebook messages," she said. "People were ready to move the earth and moon for us."

She decided to set up a website through the Alberta Cancer Foundation called Woloshyn's Warriors, where anyone can donate directly to brain cancer research, a majority of which is done in Alberta.

"Without new treatment, I'm dead in the water," she said.

Woloshyn also started blogging about her experiences with cancer treatment, as a way to keep her large circle of contacts informed about her progress. She later turned her first year of cancer blog posts into a book, titled Blogs for the Brain, which was published in December 2010.

Following her chemotherapy and radiation treatment, her energy levels were returning and Woloshyn wanted to make the most of her time in good health. Because her form of brain cancer is incurable, "recurrence is not only possible, but probable."

She traveled to New York, N.Y., San Francisco, Calif., and Mexico, and invested time with loved ones.

"Although cancer was literally always on my mind, I never felt better about myself, and had never been happier in my life," Woloshyn said at her most recent fundraiser, Grey Matters, which raised more than $11,000.

In the summer of 2011, she experienced the inevitable — her cancer returned. In July, she underwent her second brain surgery in less than two years. She was presented with two options for treatment: to undergo the same chemotherapy treatment as she had had before, or a phase-two clinical trial of a drug called Avastin. Woloshyn chose the latter.

While waiting for approval for the clinical trial, she experienced another recurrence and received her third brain surgery on Sept. 19, days after her 35th birthday.

Woloshyn was approved for the trial, and will remain on Avastin for the rest of her life unless a cure is found.

She remains optimistic and motivated to continue raising money and awareness for brain cancers, using her powerful story to reach out to the public. Being diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme is something that many people would experience later in their life, so Woloshyn regards the challenge of living with cancer as an opportunity.

"I've never looked at this, like 'why me?' I've been angry, but it's more like, 'OK, why did I get this?' I'm not a super religious person, but God never gives you more than you can handle.

"And also, you get things for a reason. You look at my story and talents. The fact that I have experience public speaking, I've done it for a decade," she said.

"I also have my health. A lot of people with brain cancer, they are so sick, they can't do these things because all they can focus on is their health."

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