The Daily Globe - Serving Gogebic, Iron and Ontonagon Counties

A survivor's journey


Jan Tucker/Daily Globe

Gail Ollila, of Ontonagon, has survived breast cancer and now works at Aspirus Ontonagon Hospital in the housekeeping, laundry and dietary department.

ONTONAGON - Cancer dealt a double whammy for Gail Ollila, of Ontonagon.

Ollila was a custodian at the Ontonagon Area Elementary-Junior High School when she met and married teacher and elementary principal Jim Ollila in 1983. When their daughter, Amanda, was born, Ollila became a stay-at-home mom.

In addition to Amanda, she has two step-sons from her husband's previous marriage.

Jim Ollila was just 56 when he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Surgery and chemotherapy followed. He was still receiving chemotherapy when Gail, then 41, decided to have her regular check-up and mammogram. She had her first mammogram at 40, although there was no history of cancer in her family, and felt no reason to believe that there was any problem.

"I was stunned to learn that I had breast cancer," she said.

She had a biopsy and then lumpectomy.

Although Gail was concerned, she said she couldn't think about herself because Jim was still in chemo and fighting his cancer. She received radiation, while at the same time Jim was still receiving chemotherapy. 

Gail began radiation treatments from December 2002 to January 2003. Nine months later, in October 2003, Jim died.

It has been 12 years since that breast cancer diagnosis and for a time she took Tamoxifen and received check-ups, first every three months, then six and now yearly. She still gets a little anxious when the yearly check-up is due, but "so far so good," she said.

Gail expressed objection to the recommendation six years ago by a federal task force that women without a family history of breast cancer wait until age 50 to get a yearly mammogram.

She also disagrees with recent guidelines from the Cancer Society that women should start having mammograms at 45. "We had no history of breast cancer in the family and had I waited to get that test until then, I would be dead by now," she added.

She has high praise for Dr. Marc Santini, who cared for both Jim and Gail at Aspirus Grand View Hospital. "He showed so much compassion for both of us and was always there when we needed him."

In 2004, less than a year after Jim's death, Gail went to work in the housekeeping, laundry and dietary department at Aspirus Ontonagon Hospital, a job she still maintains.

Community support was important during the trying times of the Ollila family. Gail said Jim's secretary, the late Mary Jane Rubich and family, sat with her during the difficult surgery for Jim. Because of Jim's diagnosis, Mary Jane had tests which indicated she, too, had esophageal cancer. Gail then sat with Mary Jane's family when she had surgery.

That support from the community continued when one day a group from Smurfit Stone Container had a large truck full of wood dumped in the Ollila front yard. Later, the late football coach Bob Carlson and the OAHS football team came and cut up and stacked the wood, ready for the wood furnace. Later friends sponsored fundraiser to help the family financially.

For Gail, early mammograms and support from friends and community can make a big difference in the fight she had and continues to have as a breast cancer survivor.


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