In May 2015, Holly Olson ran the Lincoln Marathon in honor of two special women. She ran for her grandmother, Evie, who passed away from pancreatic cancer, and also for her friend, Gina Cyza, who was battling pancreatic cancer. A short time after the race, Holly’s friend Gina passed away, following a short battle with pancreatic cancer, leaving behind her husband, two daughters, parents, and countless friends. Both losses were devastating blows for Holly. She was stunned by how rapidly pancreatic cancer took these strong and healthy women from her. Their deaths made a tremendous impact on Holly and were the driving force behind her decision to join the Project Purple team in 2015. Her decision to join the team became the silver lining in these painful losses, as her fellow Project Purple teammates became a family to her. Now Holly is returning to the Lincoln marathon in 2016 to run once again for her grandmother and for Gina.
Holly’s grandmother, Evelyn ‘Evie’ McCarty met her future husband, Dan, in August, 1958, and the couple married in November of the same year. Over the course of their marriage, they raised five beautiful daughters together. When their children were young, Evie worked as a surgical nurse. As the kids grew up, she was promoted to a supervisory position and eventually, the Director of Nursing.
In February, 2009, Evie and Dan traveled to Israel for a ten day trip. She was strong and healthy, except for some mild indigestion. Despite the digestive problems, Evie continued on with her typical activity level. By July, however, things changed rapidly. On July 18th, 2009, her stomach problems were severe enough that she went to the emergency room seeking relief. On July 21st, she had a CT scan, and two days later, on July 23rd, she learned that she had stage IV pancreatic cancer.
Given few treatment options, Evie received chemotherapy from August until October. Dan spoke to Evie’s oncologist following one appointment and he was surprised to learn that the chemotherapy would never cure her cancer. Her tumors had spread to her liver and stomach. The doctor estimated that Evie had four to six months to live. On November 20th, hospice placed a hospital bed in Evie’s home. She used it for just one night, passing away on November 21st, 2009.
Holly was Evie’s first grandchild, and she felt a special bond with her grandmother. Evie’s passing was extremely painful for Holly. “This was my first experience with pancreatic cancer and it was something I had never experienced with a loved one before,” Holly explains. “She was such an amazing person, full of energy and with a heart of gold. It was terrible to watch this cancer take over her everyday living. It just sucks the life out of you. I miss her so much and still catch myself trying to call her when I have a cooking question or a medical question.”
Four years ago, after Holly finished having children, she realized that she had been caring for everyone else but she had not been taking time for herself. Some friends had invited her to join their running group, and even though she was initially hesitant, she decided to take them up on the offer. She began running two to three times each week with her group and found that she really enjoyed doing something for herself and the sense of accomplishment that she obtained from running. After running for just six months, Holly signed up for her first half-marathon. She ran the Lincoln half-marathon in 2014 and had an amazing first time experience. Since then, Holly has run other races, including her first full marathon. She loves running and says of her marathon, “That is a memory I will never forget and how amazing it was to cross that finish line!”
Pancreatic cancer touched Holly’s life again in 2014. Her friend, Gina Cyza, who was also a runner, was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer, just months after having run the Lincoln half-marathon. On October 2, 2014, the 40-year-old teacher, wife and mother of two learned that her stomach discomfort was caused by metastatic pancreatic cancer. Holly says, “I couldn’t believe the news, as she seemed like someone who was so healthy and just couldn’t get cancer. It was on my mind every time I ran after that.” Holly was shocked that someone so young could receive such a devastating diagnosis. Gina fought her cancer with every ounce of strength she had, enduring months of chemotherapy. During those months of battling, Gyna lived life to the fullest. She made the most of her time with her family and even traveled to New York City with her husband.
Eventually, Gina developed blood clots, one of which went to her brain. In April, 2015, she suffered a stroke that paralyzed the left side of her body. Gina passed away on May 22nd, 2015, just months after her diagnosis.
Gina’s family and numerous friends had rallied around her as she battled her cancer, and many in her community were inspired to fight against pancreatic cancer on her behalf. After Holly’s two experiences with pancreatic cancer, she knew that she wanted to help in the fight. Holly learned about Project Purple through a friend and immediately wanted to join. Holly had first run the Lincoln half in 2014. In 2015, she returned to the Lincoln half-marathon, this time as part of the Project Purple team. Holly explains, “Project purple became my running family those few months before the race. I met some amazing friends who truly had such huge hearts. It was nice to know we all had a little thing in common. Not a positive subject to talk about, but we needed that for each other: to be able to vent, laugh, cry and scream.”
Going into the 2015 Lincoln half-marathon, Holly was feeling very emotional. Gina was in the hospital and she was not doing well. “Gina had a bad week right before the race and she knew that I was out there running for her. She kept asking if I was done running yet. At mile 10, I lost it. I started to cry hard and then I was gasping for air. I stopped on the curb and took deep breaths. Then, I looked up the road ahead and knew I had to keep going. Gina and Grandma were counting on me to do this for them. Once I picked up my feet and moved them again, I got a burst of energy and it carried me to the finish line. I knew they were there with me the whole way!”
Holly had such a great experience with the Project Purple team in 2015 that she decided to return for the 2016 race. “It is a must that I keep trying to raise awareness and help find a cure for this horrible cancer. The last thing I want to hear again is that a family member or friend is affected by this beast.” Holly is training hard to achieve her goal of finishing her third Lincoln half-marathon. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to her Project Purple fundraising campaign at the following link: