Victoria twin sisters each battle cancer, journey together

If Easter is about renewal after suffering, then this is a good time for the story of the Olynyk twins.

They’re 25, bright, effervescent. Stacey has officially been cancer-free for a while now. Karen endured her final round of chemotherapy last month.

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Twins diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma a year and a half apart. What are the odds?

The Olynyks, raised in Yorkton, Sask., flew to Victoria on a seat sale in 2007, intending to work their way across the country.

They never left. “I didn’t think there could be a place as nice as this in Canada,” Karen says.

They toiled as restaurant servers before enrolling at Camosun College in 2010. When the Old Spaghetti Factory, where Stacey worked, entered a team in the Ride to Conquer Cancer, both sisters signed up.

Those plans, along with everything else, came apart in February 2011 when their dad died unexpectedly. It was while back in Saskatchewan after the funeral that Stacey had a doctor check out an odd itching sensation she had been experiencing. At age 23, she didn’t expect the diagnosis to be cancer.

She stayed in Saskatchewan through four rounds of chemo, followed by radiation. If it was awful, at least she had the support of Karen, her big sister by 17 minutes. They are close as can be.

Stacey couldn’t wait to return to B.C. “I just wanted to be back to normal.” She resumed studies at Camosun in September 2011, less than a month after her last treatment in Saskatchewan.

At that point, Stacey having beaten cancer, both sisters felt on top of the world.

“I remember thinking ‘nothing can get us down,’ ” Karen says. “I was feeding off of Stacey, and she was feeding off of me.”

But then, last summer, Karen noticed something wrong with the lymph nodes in her neck.

“I thought ‘it couldn’t be, it couldn’t be, not after everything we’ve been through.’ ”

It was. The diagnosis became official Sept. 19: Hodgkin’s lymphoma, just like Stacey, who crumbled inside at learning her sister’s news.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Stacey says.

“I took it harder, almost, than my own diagnosis.”

Says Karen: “Seeing her break down about my diagnosis, I thought ‘my God, is it going to be that bad?’ ”

It has been rough. Four rounds of chemo, followed, thankfully, by a positive prognosis. Fresh out of treatment, Karen’s emotions are still raw. She’s angry. She’s happy. She’s grateful. Both sisters grew tearful on Friday talking about twice taking the same journey together, twice having their lives put on hold, twice having endured. “Wow, does it change you,” Karen says.

It was last December that Stacey’s thoughts turned to the bicycle journey that circumstance forced the twins to abandon in 2011.

She texted Mike Gonzalez, the owner of Victoria’s Old Spaghetti Factory: “Are you doing the ride?”

He knew what she was getting at, so texted back “I am now.”

“Let’s do this,” she replied.

So Team Spaghetti Factory was re-formed, five of them, including Gonzalez and Stacey, training for the Ride to Conquer Cancer. It takes places in June, a two-day cycle from Vancouver to Seattle in support of the B.C. Cancer Foundation.

“Having been through this and having seen my sister go through it, I thought ‘I want to put an end to this,’ ” Stacey says.

“I want to see a cure.”

You can spot her out training on a road bike provided by Oak Bay Bicycles. Other supporters are also on board. On May 11, Stephen Andrew of CTV Vancouver Island and CFAX, who has had his own struggles with cancer, will host a fundraising screening of Wired To Win: Surviving the Tour de France at the Imax Victoria theatre. Details of that and other events are at teamspaghettifactory.com.

The twins are profoundly grateful for the help they have received, are profoundly grateful to be here, today, with the sun shining and trees flowering and more growth to come.

There’s an Easter metaphor in there somewhere, one that Gonzalez thinks is appropriate: “Hope, in the Christian faith, is a virtue, a blessing.”

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