In 2010, at the age of 29, Jessica Oldwyn learned she had a brain tumor.
Six years and three surgeries later, the 35-year-old Edmonds resident is still uncertain what the future holds, but this week she is enjoying some time in the spotlight.
On Tuesday, Aug. 16, Oldwyn and her husband Dan Carroll flew to Los Angeles to attend an all-expenses-paid premiere of a documentary “My Last Days.” Oldwyn is one of six different people who are featured – all of them diagnosed with a terminal illness. It will also provide an opportunity for each of the six documentary subjects to meet each other, Oldwyn said.
The documentary airs three different nights – Aug. 17, 18 and 19 – and is scheduled locally for 9 p.m. on KSTW, Channel 11. Oldwyn’s segment is set for Friday, Aug. 19.
It’s important to note, though, that when Oldwyn sent an email to My Edmonds News about the documentary, she placed quote marks around the word “terminal.”
“For the record, I don’t consider myself terminal,” she wrote. “I don’t live my life that way. The title of the show sounds so final, but cancer isn’t like that, it’s less concrete. Who knows when my last days are?”
Oldwyn was diagnosed with a diffuse astrocytoma tumor in April 2010. At the time, the Friday Harbor, Wash. native was living in Wenatchee, working in her parents’ business. Carroll, a childhood from Friday Harbor, was then her boyfriend and has been by her side during years of treatment and surgeries.
She has been writing about her journey with cancer through her blog, which she’s titled “Toom-ah? What Stinkin’ Toom-ah!” In it, she describes waking up from back-to-back brain surgeries in Seattle, “paralyzed on my right side, with severe aphasia (the inability to communicate verbally or using written words). I didn’t know the alphabet, couldn’t use more than a single syllable word, people had to dumb down for me, to talk slowly, and I still didn’t understand most of what was said. “
What saved her, Oldwyn said, “was my hunger to communicate, and my hunger to do things myself. “ Although she couldn’t recognize, understand, or process speech, she was able to type thoughts and feelings on a computer. “I could chicken peck with my left finger, and express myself, but I couldn’t even read back what I had typed,”
Thanks to speech therapy, she learned to read, write and speak again. With the help of physical therapy, the former half-marathoner relearned how to walk, then jog, then run.
“I have had doctors and nurses and psychologists tell me that I would not heal. That I would not run. That I would not read. That I would not get better,” she said. “I have also been told by different doctors and nurses that I could get better, if not just a little bit. If I would have listened to the wrong folks, I might have given up. If I chose the dark over the light, my life would be different.”
Her blog captured the attention of Wayfarer Entertainment, which contacted her last summer. “They were producing ‘a documentary series about courageous people facing one of life’s most difficult challenges, a terminal illness,’ and my story resonated with them,” Oldwyn said. “As a brain tumor blogger, I have shared my story in the hopes that I can be a resource, and advocate for patients and caregivers.”
By that time, the couple had moved to Edmonds, where Carroll had lived before he began dating Oldwyn. “He always wanted to come back, and we were able to move back a year and a half ago,” Oldwyn said in a phone interview from the Los Angeles airport Tuesday morning. The Wayfarer production crew shot on location in Edmonds, but part of the documentary segment was also filmed in Friday Harbor. That’s because, thanks to the production company, the couple was able to realize a six-year dream of getting married.
Carroll had proposed to Oldwyn, “but after a cancer diagnosis, the planning, organization, and mostly the finances, a wedding was too overwhelming. So, when Wayfarer offered to help me surprise him with an official wedding, I couldn’t turn it down,” Oldwyn said.
Only two or three close friends knew about the wedding, which was planned for the weekend after Oldwyn’s 35th birthday. “We disguised it as a birthday party for me, and had two weeks to plan,” she said. The surprise ceremony with about 50 guests was also captured as part of the documentary.
Oldwyn, who was thinking about attending law school prior to her diagnosis, currently is unable to work but she is grateful for the opportunity to live in Edmonds. She has joined a group of Edmonds women who walk regularly “and it has really changed my life in such a good way,” she said.
Since Oldwyn has already had three surgeries and the tumors have always come back quickly, she has been trying many different therapies in an effort to save her life – and nearly all of them aren’t covered by health insurance. As a result, two friends have started a GoFundMe site – called Jessica’s Medical Fund – which the couple insisted be restricted to two months’ worth of donations for immunotherapy treatment.
She is still trying to decide whether to have yet another surgery, tentatively scheduled for this fall.
And Oldwyn said she will keep on blogging, “to help empower people into realizing that everything in life is a choice, your attitude, which doctor you choose, what you’ll put up with in life.
“There are still more options,” she said. “Sometimes we just need to hear that.”
— By Teresa Wippel