UOW graduate Jessica Olson. Photo: Alex Pike

Journalism graduate shares how cancer changed her life

Journalism graduate shares how cancer changed her life

Jessica Olson thrilled to be celebrating end of her studies after ongoing battle with illness

Jessica Olson has always been a natural storyteller. From a young age, she loved to read and write. She would draft her own novels and short stories, to distribute to family and friends. At the age of six, she created a magazine, appropriately titled J-Mag, that featured profile stories, crosswords, puzzles, and her own investigative reporting. The cost? An affordable 50 cents.

This skill has put her in good stead throughout the course of her double degree in Journalism and Communications. It has also helped Jessica to tell her own story, a story that is not like that of her peers. It is a story that has been captured by the media, and on her blog.

At the age of 15, Jessica received her first cancer diagnosis, Stage II Nodular Sclerosing Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. After a grueling eight rounds of chemotherapy and two and a half weeks of radiotherapy, she was placed in remission in December 2011. She did not know at the time that it would be the first of five diagnoses to come, encompassing three different types of cancer.

Today (Wednesday 6 November), she celebrated her graduation from the University of Wollongong (UOW) with a Bachelor of Journalism/Bachelor of Communications and Media. It has been a long, tough journey for Jessica, but she was thrilled to be enjoying the moment with her cohort.

The decision to come to UOW was an easy one for Jessica, who in 2014 started her studies straight out of high school.

“I loved the look of UOW’s campus and I’d heard so many great things about it from friends who were older than me, who’d already begun studying there,” she said.

“I received Early Entry when I was just beginning my HSC exam into both Journalism and Communications, so instead of deciding between the two I thought ‘Why not do a double degree?’

“Ever since I was a little girl I've loved storytelling, reading, writing, newsworthiness and creativity.

“Writing is something that's always come easily for me. My family would say ‘One day you're going to be a journalist’ and from there it just kind of stuck. I was that kid who when adults asked ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’, I would respond in a very specific and rehearsed manner ‘I'm going to study Journalism and Communications and become a journalist one day’.”

But just over a year into her studies, Jessica was again on the receiving end of some tough news. She had cancer of the saliva gland. It was followed by surgery, radiotherapy, and many hard days for Jessica. In 2018, she found another lump and received another diagnosis. It was a relapse of the same cancer.

“Cancer was incredibly disruptive to my degree, even when I did my best to not let it get in the way of things,” she said. “When I was first diagnosed in 2016 I had to defer a semester, then when I relapsed in 2018, I deferred Autumn session. I had everything crossed that I'd be miraculously in remission and be able to return to Uni for Spring session but unfortunately the cancer was still there and my spirits were far too low to get back to my studies. I deferred again, knowing mentally I wouldn't be able to take on any more than I was already struggling to carry.”

Her cheerful and optimistic demeanour shone through, despite the cards she had been dealt. In her words, Jessica changed her perspective and decided that returning to her finish degree would be the distraction she needed.

Jessica said she gained so much from her studies, providing her with a holistic view of how the media works. Her outstanding teachers and interesting subjects helped to keep her motivated throughout her degrees.

“There was never a dull moment in any subject or class, which was what I loved about studying something I’m so passionate about. 

“There were so many highlights; the independence you gain from choosing to pursue study in an area you love, the amazing teachers you get to learn from and connect with, the other students you make friends with who are likeminded and driven and being able to learn more about myself and who I want to become in this world.”

Jessica’s cancer diagnoses have changed her perspective on life. It has also brought a new approach to wellness. Now trained as a yoga teacher, Jessica is fascinated with understanding how the body responds to good nutrition. 

“Since going through my own cancer journey, I’ve essentially had to become a researcher of all the foods and practices that work to boost my immune system and help my body thrive,” she said. “I’d never really considered anything about health and wellness until my doctors said, ‘There’s nothing left we can do’.

“I decided to become a yoga teacher because yoga was something that was really healing for me when I was going through a lot emotionally and mentally and is still something I go to when I'm not feeling myself.”

Now that she has finished her degree, Jessica is looking forward to the new opportunities that life will bring. She is hoping to find a role in the media or creative industries that will capture her love of crafting a story, meeting interesting, and having an impact. Her blog reflects her fighting spirit and her way with words. 

Cancer has brought tremendous lows but it has also helped Jessica to appreciate the highs; each new day is a gift, and she embraces every single one. It is not the story she was expecting as a young budding journalist, but it is the story she’s been living and she writing the best possible version. She continues to live with, and fight, her rare, untreatable, and aggressive cancer.

“Cancer’s changed me in so many ways over the past eight years that it almost blurs the lines between who I was before and who I am now,” Jessica said. “I’ve been diagnosed five times with three different types of cancers since I was 15, which is enough to either completely destroy you or transform you. I'd have to say I've been a bit of both over the years; both defeated and frustrated as well as grateful and experienced.

“It's so easy to breeze through life, not noticing the love around you until they're all memories and you're stuck reminiscing of what used to be and could've been. It forces you to realise how precious each short moment of life is and encourages you to be present to all that's happening right now.”