Kristin O’Lear: The Battle of a Lifetime

Written by Julie Becker. Posted in Cover Stories

Many women dream of their wedding day years before it happens. The dress, the flowers, the location and, perhaps most importantly, their loved one waiting at the altar.

In all the wedding fantasies a woman could ever dream, no one ever imagines having to plan a wedding in three weeks because they’ve been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and their fiancée is scheduled to go on tour with the United State Marine Corps. Then again, Kristin O’Lear isn’t most women.

To meet O’Lear today you would never know she fought and is surviving stage four Sarcomatoid Carcinoma, a rare form of lung cancer most predominantly found in people over the age of 60. Diagnosed on Nov. 2, 2010, O’Lear and then fiancée Sean Collins had some big decisions to make.

“(Sean) was supposed to go to Japan, and we tried to get him out of it. Even though we had been engaged for two years, because I wasn’t family they wouldn’t let him stay,” said O’Lear. “His tour was supposed to be for two years and I was given two years to live — so we got married, two days before Thanksgiving.”

On Nov. 23, 2010 — just 21 days post-diagnosis — O’Lear and Collins were wed in his parents’ home with 100 of their closest family and friends in attendance.

“Considering it was a week’s notice, a lot of people turned up for that,” said O’Lear.

O’Lear, just 21 years old on the day of their wedding, had been dating Collins for more than five years. The couple met in high school marching band in 2004. Although Collins is two years older than O’Lear and had plans to join the Marines, she supported his decision from the start.

“We weren’t together for very long (before he left for basic training in 2005), and those decisions were made a year before, but I really supported him,” said O’Lear. “My brother is currently in the Air Force and both of my parents are retired military, so I know what it means to want to serve your country. Even if we weren’t going to stay together, I was very supportive of what he wanted to do.”

O’Lear also places a high value on her own dreams. Planning to attend college and earn her bachelors degree while Collins served with the Marines, O’Lear kept a great head on her shoulders through the end of high school and into college.

“I always said there needs to be a ‘me’ before there can be a ‘we,’” said O’Lear. “I knew I wasn’t going to follow him around. I wanted to accomplish my dreams and go to college. How am I supposed to support a family if I just get my M.R.S. degree?”

While O’Lear finished high school and eventually enrolled at Michigan State University (MSU), Collins travelled around the world. From Florida, to Iraq, to California and then Afghanistan, the two kept in touch and visited when they could.
“We knew that the separation was going to be really hard. I was 16 and he was 18 (when he left for basic training,)” said O’Lear, “but I knew it was all going to be worth it some day.”

For nearly five years, O’Lear and Collins were geographically separated but remained committed to one another and their relationship. O’Lear went on to study international relations at MSU and was a dedicated member of the Spartan Marching Band, playing the alto sax for all four years of college.

During fall 2010, in the heart of band season, O’Lear began feeling pain in her side. After several misdiagnoses — ranging from a pulled diaphragm to a viral infection — O’Lear returned to her parents’ home in Macomb, Mich. and sought the care of family doctors.

After experiencing severe trouble breathing, O’Lear was admitted in late October for emergency surgery. More than six liters of fluid were removed from her chest and doctors discovered her right lung had collapsed.

“I was in the hospital for about nine days after that. I had a chest tube and was on a CPAP until my lung could work on its own,” said O’Lear. “They did bone scans and other scans, and they didn’t tell me right away, but I figured out something was really wrong.”

After later being diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, O’Lear began chemo therapy treatments at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center. Though her husband was nearly a world away, her family was always by her side.

“It was really hard. I had my whole family. I had his whole family. I think it was harder for him to hear about it and have to be 3,000 miles away,” said O’Lear.
O’Lear’s chemotherapy treatments continued every four weeks from Dec. 12, 2010 through April 2011. O’Lear reflects fondly of her time in chemotherapy, noting the positive relationships and fun times she had as a die-hard Spartan in Wolverine territory.

“I was really spirited — lots of Spartan gear. It was a lot a fun. As much as (chemotherapy) was tiring, I met a lot of great people,” said O’Lear. “I didn’t like any of the medicine, but I loved the people.”

Like chemo, O’Lear speaks very lightheartedly about many challenging aspects of cancer. She even noted that cutting her hair was “the funnest part.” Trying different hairstyles and eventually sporting a mohawk until shaving her head in early 2011, O’Lear wasn’t letting any part of cancer break her spirit.

“I thought it was going to be harder than it was to cut my hair. I laughed more than I cried,” said O’Lear. “You have to think, ‘lose your hair or lose your life.’ Your hair will grow back but another Kristin won’t.”

Though O’Lear’s condition will always be labeled as stage four lung cancer, on her sister’s birthday — Jan. 28 2011— she was notified that her scans were clear and have been ever since, meaning the two year life expectancy she was given no longer holds true.

O’Lear attributes a great deal of her survival to the power of positive thinking, her supportive band mates, friends and family, a sense of humor and lots of “ice cream therapy.”

“I just always have been an upbeat person. I believe it could have been worse. I could have been given two months instead of two years,” said O’Lear. “Even though I was bald and didn’t have any eyebrows or eyelashes … (Collins) still thought I was very beautiful and still wanted to be with me … having people think that you’re still beautiful even though you don’t have all the parts of you that make you feel beautiful … having that (support) was very important.”

Now that O’Lear has graduated, she and Collins plan to have the wedding of their dreams. Set for Aug. 11, 2012, O’Lear has had plenty of time to plan — including a very special trip to Kleinfeld Bridal in New York City this past July to pick the dress.

First airing on Dec. 28, 2011, O’Lear’s story of love and survival was featured on TLC’s hit show “Say Yes to the Dress.”

“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t use cancer to get on the show,” joked O’Lear.

Making light of so many instances that could easily bring her down, O’Lear’s has learned to take nothing for granted and to always say, “I love you.”

“(Collins and I) always say, ‘if it wasn’t hard it wouldn’t’ be worth having.’ We know that being separated or having to go through cancer, this fight and this challenge is all going to be worth it. It’s not a sprint it’s a marathon,” said O’Lear. “And — even if you’re in a fight — always end a conversation with I love you.”

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