Mary Opsahl Loses Daughter, Gina, to PC

Losing a child is every parent’s worst nightmare. It is not the order of life. It is not how things are supposed to work. Parents should never have to experience this unbearable pain. Whether the child is four years old or forty, it makes little difference to the mother and father who suffer the loss. For the past 18 months, Mary Opsahl has woken up every day to the reality that her beautiful daughter, her only child, Gina Cyza, was taken from her. Mary stood by her daughter every day for months as she battled stage IV pancreatic cancer. She watched as the disease cruelly marched through her daughter’s body, feeling helpless and unable to stop the pain and cruel indignity of the disease. It is now Mary’s mission in life to make sure that Gina and her battle with pancreatic cancer are not forgotten.

From Left to Right: Chris, Gina, Mary, Lindsay, Quinn and Claire
From Left to Right: Chris, Gina, Mary, Lindsay, Quinn and Claire


In the year 2014, Mary Opsahl and her daughter were both enjoying their full lives. Gina and her husband Chris had two beautiful young daughters, Quinn and Claire. Gina and Mary were not only mother and daughter, they were also close friends and confidants. Gina was widely viewed as a special woman and she had many friends. People throughout the community loved her for her dedication to her job as a Kindergarten teacher and because she was a kind and compassionate human being.

Gina Cyza
Gina Cyza

Mary reflects back to Gina’s childhood, saying, “Gina has always been an especially caring person, even when she was little. She was such a good baby. I always thought she was sent to us from heaven.” As an only child, Gina was drawn to other children. “She would hoist herself up to peer out the window when we lived in an apartment. She loved to play school with her younger cousins. They were just mesmerized by her.”

Gina’s Calling in Life

From a very early age, Gina knew she wanted to be a teacher. Mary recalls, “She always, always wanted to be a teacher. That never changed from when she was a little girl.” Throughout high school and college, Gina worked in daycare centers. Though Gina obtained a degree in speech pathology, her heart was never really into that line of work. She went to work in human resources for a year before making the decision to return to school to obtain a teaching degree. She did her student teaching with the Elkhorn School District and ended up being hired by the district as a full-time teacher at Westridge Elementary School. Gina found her niche in life as a teacher. She loved making an impact in the lives of young children and her students and their parents adored her.

While Mary appreciated Gina for all of her wonderful qualities, she loved her most because they enjoyed a close and special relationship. As Gina became an adult and then a mother, their bond grew. “She really appreciated me after she had her own kids,” Mary says. “We were so close. We did everything together.” Mary grieves the loss of her daughter every single day. Gina’s children have been the saving grace in Mary’s life. “Thank God we have our granddaughters. These last 18 months have been horrible. It is the worst thing you could ever imagine.”

Pancreatic Cancer

In the spring of 2014, Gina, who was an avid runner, noticed her calves were cramping a lot. While she mentioned it to her mother, she did not seem overly concerned about it being anything serious. As spring turned to summer, she told her family she had abdominal discomfort that often came on towards the end of the day. She described it to her mom as pressure in her stomach or maybe indigestion. Her gynecologist knew she had a family history of colon cancer, so she recommended Gina have a colonoscopy.

When that test came back clear, the doctor recommended Gina try an elimination diet to see if a particular food was bothering her. She was given a referral to a gastroenterologist who suspected Gina had an ulcer. When medications did not work, the GI doctor initiated some testing. Though Mary did not know it yet, the doctor found a mass on Gina’s pancreas.


The very next day, doctors biopsied Gina’s tumor. The doctor also found three lesions on Gina’s liver. Mary recalls, “When I first heard it was liver lesions, I thought it would be OK. I thought the liver could regenerate.” When Claire and Quinn went to bed that night, Mary tried to reassure Gina that everything would be fine. However, Gina suspected the worst. She asked, “What about the pancreas? There was a mass on my pancreas.”

Mary was stunned. She knew if the pancreas was involved, the outlook was probably not good. Mary and Chris spoke to the oncologist privately. The doctor drew a diagram for them and said, “It is bad. It has spread to the liver. Surgery is not an option.” Gina waited alone in another room for word from her doctor. Mary and Chris came in to break the news to Gina, but she already suspected her diagnosis was not good. She broke down in tears before anyone said a word to her.

Chris & Gina
Chris & Gina

It was October, 2014 when Gina and her family learned she had stage IV pancreatic cancer. The first oncologist Gina saw spoke in terms of how many months she had left live. This was not what Gina wanted to hear. Gina wanted to fight her disease with everything she had. Mary explains, “She really wanted to fight. She was going to be the one to beat the odds and survive. It was too much for her to bear to think she was not going to see her kids grow up.”


Gina made the decision to seek out a different oncologist. Her new oncologist did not give Gina a timeframe. The doctor recommend 5FU for chemotherapy, a treatment that is known to be aggressive with difficult side effects. However, the oncologist felt it was the best option to give Gina more time with her family. At each chemotherapy session, the UNMC Village Point Cancer Center set Gina up in a room large enough to accommodate six to eight people, as Gina was always surrounded by friends and family for her treatments.

Gina was forced to leave the job she loved so dearly and her co-workers who had become a second family to her. It broke her heart to leave her kindergarten students, but the side effects from her chemotherapy made working impossible for her. She told Mary that she just wanted to spend time with her parents, her husband and her daughters.

Mary knew how much her daughter and granddaughters needed her and she made the decision to quit her job so she could be there for her family. From then on, she went to every appointment with Gina, often accompanied by her husband, Lindsay, and Gina’s husband, Chris. Mary has never regretted making that decision to devote herself to caring for Gina, Claire and Quinn. “I am so glad I did that. It was comforting to Gina.”

Gina with her mother, Mary.
Gina with her mother, Mary.

The next few months were difficult for the entire family. How much time Gina had left was the elephant in the room. Mary says, “She just wanted to fight it, but she didn’t talk about how much time she had left. I think if she verbalized it, it was like she was giving up.”


One of the potential side effects of pancreatic cancer is the formation of blood clots. In fact, the cramps Gina had experienced in her calves all those months ago were caused by blood clots. In the spring of 2015, Gina suffered a devastating stroke. It broke Mary’s heart to see her daughter suffer so in her final weeks. “She fought so hard and she had so many stupid obstacles, and it pisses me off that she had the added burden of the stroke. That was cruel. She was paralyzed on her left side. She wanted so much to live for her girls.”

“I share the picture of us where she doesn’t look like Gina anymore, but it is a beautiful picture. That picture was taken on Mother’s Day 2015. She kept saying the day before she wanted to get the girls something. They got the nurses to help her into the wheelchair and they went to the gift shop and got two stuffed puppies for the girls. They take those puppies everywhere. She loved those girls so much,” Mary explains. “At first I could never look at that picture. I need to talk about her and share my grief. That picture means everything to me.” Forty year old Gina Cyza passed away May 22, 2015.

Mary tends to Gina in the hospital
Mary tends to Gina in the hospital
Life After Pancreatic Cancer

Since then, Mary has had to face each day without her daughter. She sees the horrible survival statistics for pancreatic cancer and it makes her angry. She has committed herself to doing anything she can to raise awareness and funding for the illness.

“I just want people to know that this is not something that just happens to old people. I am aware of a lot of cases of young people being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It is an awful cancer. The treatment is horrible. It just robs you of everything. It happens to young, vital, beautiful people. I wish people took this more seriously,” Mary explains.

In the meantime, Mary does all she can to keep Gina’s memory alive, both for herself and for Claire and Quinn. “Not talking about Gina is hurtful. My biggest heartbreak in all of this is that the girls won’t know their mom. My purpose in life is to keep her alive to those girls.”

Gina with her girls
Gina with her girls

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