Gillian O’Blenes-Kaufman

2014 Scholarship Recipient

When Gillian’s cancer continued to spread, even while on chemo, and she learned there was nothing more the doctors could do, she told her parents there were three things she wanted to do before dying.

It was March 2014 and Gillian had only weeks, maybe months, to live and her bucket list looked like this:

1. Get a tattoo;
2. Take a Wish Trip to Greece with her family; and
3. Get married.

Gillian has managed to reach her goals, but one.  

1. In June, Gillian and her family took that trip to Greece. Check.

2. A couple of weeks later, she married her boyfriend Michael, just one week after graduating high school. Check.

Two days after the wedding, Gillian and Michael were on their honeymoon in Disneyland—both families in tow. And, in July, Gillian travelled to Mexico on a 10-day mission trip with her youth group. While most teens idled away the hot summer days, Gillian was living an entire lifetime. But she still hasn’t got that tattoo.

Ironically, achieving the most ordinary of goals would present the biggest challenge for Gillian. The tattoo she has in mind is an elaborate image of a tree with branches spreading over her back. The tattoo artist explained that the project would take several weeks to complete with lots of time in between for healing. With her compromised immune system and limited timeframe, Gillian simply didn’t have the time or the capability to heal properly between sessions.

Gillian has already lived a lot longer than doctors expected. If she had known in March that she would live into the fall, Gillian surely would’ve added a fourth goal to her bucket list:

4. Study art at the Alberta College of Art and Design.

“In the past, I’ve always shied away from the thought of doing art professionally because I was afraid it would turn my joy and passion for art into something routine or heartless,” Gillian explains. “Cancer helped to focus my thinking on this. I know now that creating art is what I want to do with the rest of my life, so I’ve enrolled at ACAD for the fall.”

With your help, Gillian is pursuing her dream of being an artist. In late August, Kids Cancer Care held a special scholarship ceremony for Gillian and her family, awarding her with a Kids Cancer Care Derek Wandzura Memorial Scholarship for studies at ACAD this fall. Check.

Gillian is not only a gifted artist; she is a brilliant dancer. She and her sisters, Colleen and Kimberly, have danced competitively for years. Ballet, point, tap, modern, hip-hop and jazz.

As a high-level dancer Gillian, is familiar with pain. But in May 2013, when the pain in her right leg persisted for two months straight, she saw a doctor. The doctor told her it was likely a muscle strain and asked her to stop dancing for a week.

It was competition time, so Gillian loaded up on painkillers and avoided seeing doctors until after the competition.

After the competition, Gillian saw a physiotherapist who knew just by feeling the leg that something was very wrong. A series of X-rays revealed a large mass in Gillian’s right femur.

The next day, Gillian was diagnosed with a bone cancer that had already spread to her lungs. They administered chemotherapy, followed by two surgeries, in which they removed a 26-centimetre tumour from her right femur and two smaller tumours from her lungs. In a third surgery, they replaced her right leg with a metal prosthetic, which has presented a whole new set of challenges for Gillian.

“I set off all the alarms in airport security now,” she laughs. “I’m a real menace.”

“She’s like the bionic woman,” her mother Wendy adds.

Like the bionic woman, Gillian has had to relearn to walk—this time with her bionic leg. With your gifts, Gillian has been rebuilding her strength through regular physiotherapy sessions at PEER (Pediatric Patients Engaging in Exercise for Recovery), a collaborative initiative between Kids Cancer Care, Alberta Health Services and the University of Calgary, Faculty of Kinesiology. 

Most crushing of all for Gillian, however; was being told she would never dance again.

Gillian’s cancer has been tough on her younger sisters. Colleen felt a lot of guilt for being so strong and healthy, while her sister was battling cancer. “Gillian is prettier, smarter and more talented than me. Why did she get cancer and not me?” Colleen asked. At one point, her sister Kimberly started questioning whether she should even be dancing at all, while Gillian was so sick.

Gillian was adamant: “You have to,” she said. “You have to dance—for me.”

It was then that her sisters’ dancing took off. As Kimberly’s dancing took on a beautifully poetic expression that hadn’t previously been there, Colleen’s dancing, which had always been brilliantly expressive, became technically strong.

Although it has been incredibly trying, cancer has not stopped the O’Blenes in the least. “As a whole, we’re closer,” says Wendy. “I’m not sure we’ll ever fully weather what’s happened, but our goal as a family has always been to plow through and move on and live life. We’ve chosen to maintain our active life and our busy schedules, but Gillian has been our inspiration through all of it.”

Indeed, Gillian has become her own inspiration, refocusing her creative energy from dancing into visual arts. She’s determined to live life fully for as long as she can.

In the fall of 2014, Gillian completed a semester at ACAD and received straight A’s. On Monday, December 8, 2014 Gillian passed away surrounded by family and friends at the age of 18.