How the Words ‘You Have Ovarian Cancer’ More Than a Decade Ago Led to My Path of Purpose Today

By Chris Olsen

I entered the word “teratoma” into the WebMD search bar and scoured the results. A rare type of tumor with hair, teeth and bone. I’d heard about this kind of thing before. No, I’d seen it on an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy.” A man thought he was pregnant, and an emergency surgery revealed that what he thought was a baby was a teratoma. I surmised that my diagnosis was like those featured in many episodes of Grey’s—freakish conditions that made for a dramatic storyline but didn’t happen much in real life. What if I’d mistaken my teratoma for a pregnancy?

On the morning of my preoperative assessment I casually Googled the surgeon who’d be extracting the teratoma. I hadn’t thought of it before that. He was, after all, one of the best gynecologic surgeons in the city according to the staff at my OB-GYN’s office. My search revealed a man in his 40s with dark wavy hair who’d graduated from Duke and was an associate professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School. That was all I needed to know. I dressed up for the appointment. I was in my 30s and in the best shape of my life. I was a vegetarian who had lost a bunch of weight and walked five miles a day. I ate organic. I never smoked. I wasn’t a big drinker. This surgery would be a breeze.

As I sat up, shifting my bare bottom awkwardly on the crinkling paper of the exam table, a threadbare medical blanket draped over my lap, the surgeon said something I never expected to hear. “I’d like to get you in for surgery to remove the tumor this Friday and you’ll start chemotherapy right after.”

“Chemotherapy?” I asked, completely confused. The doctor who’d first discovered it had said that mature cystic teratomas were almost always benign. “How do you know it’s cancer?”

“It’s definitely cancer,” he said, looking me directly in the eyes.

“But … I thought it was a teratoma?” I asked.

“No,” he said.

I’d just lost my own dad suddenly and unexpectedly to cancer a few weeks before. Ovarian cancer had taken my mom’s life a decade earlier at age 57. No one had said anything about cancer. If I had thought there was a chance I had cancer, I would have had someone in the room with me—my best friend, my aunt, someone who could help me navigate something so monumental.

“I need to talk this over with my family. And I’m in the middle of a big website project at work,” I explained to the doctor, hoping to delay the conversation.

“I don’t think you understand,” he said, his eyebrows knitting together. “This surgery needs to happen as soon as possible.”

And so it did. I had ovarian cancer surgery that same week. Removal of both ovaries and fallopian tubes, the peritoneum and a dozen or so lymph nodes in my groin. Six sessions of brutal chemotherapy followed. Then another surgery to implant titanium mesh in my abdomen after my original incision herniated. A third surgery to remove the titanium mesh and replace it with something that wouldn’t cause tidal waves of torso pain accompanied by cold sweats. CT scans and blood draws every few weeks to make sure the cancer was gone. Plus, lots of side effects like a nonfunctioning thyroid, disordered eating, extreme fatigue and lymphedema—severe swelling in my legs—brought on by the removal of my lymph nodes.

During the crux of my medical issues, I was working for a museum in Minneapolis. What started as a short-term contract position had turned into a four-year full-time gig. I never intended for it to be my primary position. But I’d become great friends with some of the staff, and the building and grounds were a lovely place to work. The job ended up being a blessing and a curse. It offered excellent health insurance, which meant I never paid a dime for any of my medical costs. But it also came with a heartless supervisor. Despite taking only four weeks of medical leave, finishing the big website project and several other projects on schedule, she saw fit to oust me. She presented me with two options when I returned to work: Accept a newly created lower-level position with a substantial cut in pay or a two-week severance package. Instead of accepting either, I quit.

I had launched my communications consulting company because I wanted to work with organizations that were aligned with my values. Though the museum’s mission to educate and innovate was close to my heart, the culture created by a dysfunctional leadership team was the exact opposite of anything I ever imagined being a part of. The signs had begun to emerge when my dad died and the manager I reported to barely acknowledged my loss—no flowers, no card, not a single word of consolation. A week after my dad’s memorial service, she overheard me sarcastically say to a coworker, “The museum doesn’t need a communications pro when they have you” and formally reprimanded me. I knew it was time to move on. It just so happened that I was diagnosed with cancer before I had the chance.

It has been more than a decade since I heard the words, “You have ovarian cancer.” I’m not sure I can adequately relay how much life has changed since then. One of the biggest transformations has been my career. What became crystal clear to me after staring death in the face is that I didn’t want to waste a single second doing work that didn’t make my heart sing. I wanted to have a greater impact. To leave a mark. But first I needed to pinpoint my purpose.

I began by searching for answers in books—“Start with Why” by Simon Sinek, “Start Something That Matters” by TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie, “Let My People Go Surfing” by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, and dozens more. I took classes and attended seminars. I interviewed social entrepreneurs. I worked with a coach. I eventually realized I wanted to combine the power of purpose and storytelling to make a difference in the world. But it was my work with a nonprofit women’s economic development agency that brought it all together. An experience I had while working with fledgling entrepreneurs made me realize I wanted to do more to help women succeed in launching and growing their businesses. That’s what led to my second business, My Founder Story, being born.

My Founder Story is a social enterprise that launched in 2018 with a mission to empower women and amplify their stories. Since that time, through workshops, coaching and publications, we’ve supported and shared the stories of thousands of female founders pursuing their purpose. Those stories have been viewed, loved and shared by millions of people. And because My Founder Story is driven by purpose, we donated nearly a quarter of a million dollars in services and grants to women business owners. We’ve only just begun. We will continue partnering with more individuals and organizations to have an even greater impact.

Sometimes it all feels like a dream. Cancer is so far in the rearview now that most of the time I can barely see it. Sure, there are a few tire tracks on the pavement—some remaining health challenges—but I am officially 10+ years free of cancer and living a life I love. It may sound crazy to some, but I am grateful for everything that has happened to me—even the difficult and messy parts. Because without those experiences, I may never have embarked on a pathway to purpose. I may never have realized what I was meant to do with this one wild and precious life I’ve been given.

About the author: Chris Olsen is a radio veteran turned communications consultant, educator and author of “Whyography: Building a Brand Fueled by Purpose”. Through her work as a consultant partnering with startups, Chris realized her WHY—to support womxn-owned businesses in confidently communicating their purpose and impact, setting them up for entrepreneurial success. She created My Founder Story as a platform for doing so.

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