Tom Olsen is back on the job cutting hair again, but it’s been a rough five months–make that five years, actually–for him and his family.
Olsen and his wife Colleen Olsen own Tom’s Barber Shop, 938 Lowry Ave. NE. Tom has been a barber since 1968. After he got back from the service [he was stationed in Germany during the Vietnam War], he bought his first shop, Tom’s Barber Shop at 2505 Central Ave. NE. In 1995, they moved to the southeast corner of Central and Lowry. In 2000, they had six employees (including two nail technicians) and four tanning beds.
A fire in May, 2005, destroyed the Central/Lowry building, which they owned. They relocated the business half a block east, to a smaller building (their present location), and opened up again in September, 2005.
Colleen said they were just getting their lives back on track again when another blow struck: Last October, doctors diagnosed Tom with stage three (on a scale of zero to four, with four being the most advanced) throat cancer.
He went to the doctor after noticing a swelling on his neck. After 16 biopsies of his throat, physicians determined that it had started on his tonsils and spread to the back of his tongue and the right side of his throat. He started radiation and intensive chemotherapy, which ended Feb. 21. For weeks afterward, he couldn’t talk. He lost 60 pounds and still has a feeding tube in his stomach.
Two weeks ago he regained his ability to talk, and has started working limited hours at the shop. “I feel pretty good,” he said. “I just started eating [regular food] again. I couldn’t before, because my throat was so swollen.”
Friends, family and clients threw a fundraiser for Tom on Saturday, March 27, 6-9 p.m., at Moose on Monroe (Monroe and Spring streets NE). The event includes a silent auction and spaghetti dinner.
Active in the community
The Olsens are well-known in Northeast for their community involvement. Tom belongs to the Northeast Lions and Northeast Chamber of Commerce. He, Colleen and daughter Stacy were Guardian Angels, a citizens safety group that patrols neighborhoods. For years, the couple have been Eastside parade sponsors and have offered their shop as the headquarters for the yearly Weed It and Reap cleanup.
Unable to sell the now-empty lot at Lowry and Central, they collaborated with Edison High School and other neighborhood groups and volunteers last year to plant a community garden on it. Now there are plans to build a giant pierogi-on-a-fork bronze statue there.
Colleen said that at first, when some friends and clients talked to her about holding a fundraiser, she had reservations about it. “I wasn’t sure what to think. And at the time, we didn’t know how Tom would be feeling. But people said they wanted to do something for him, because he’s done so much for the community.”
She said that the years since the fire have been hard on them financially. Not only did they have to let all their employees go, but because it has been so expensive to rebuild their small business, they couldn’t afford health insurance. Despite that, she said, they thought they had been making progress.
“We were just getting our lives back to normal, and now this happens,” Colleen said. On the other hand, she added, “He was lucky. The doctors think they got all the cancer. Now it’s recovery time.”
Because Tom is a veteran, he went to the Veterans Administration hospital for his treatments. “I had a good experience there,” he said. “They treated me really well. I was impressed.”
He said there is no history of cancer in his family and he hasn’t smoked since 1971. He said he still has some reminders of his illness: his tongue is numb and he feels cold all the time. Next month he will have a PET (positron emission tomography) scan, a procedure where technicians shoot radioactive dye into his veins to detect whether he still has any live cancer cells.
He and Colleen said their friends and family, including Stacy, their other daughter Jessie and Colleen’s brother Kevin Troxel, have been wonderfully supportive. One friend, Tommy White, moved in with them to help take care of Tom while Colleen went to work. “He was basically Tom’s nurse. He was a godsend,” she said.
White said he has known the Olsens a long time, and in fact was a tenant in the upstairs apartments in their Central/Lowry building when it burned. Since they learned of Tom’s cancer, he said, “I’ve been trying to do whatever is needed.
“This throat cancer, and not being able to talk, has been very tough on him. Tom doesn’t smoke, and hasn’t been out abusing himself like some people do. Just last week, Colleen said she heard him tell a joke again; that’s a very good sign. I’m happy that everything seems to be looking good.” He said he has been working on the fundraiser, and walked up and down Central Avenue recently trying to get donations for it.
Another friend, Richard Taylor, said he was devastated to learn Tom had cancer, but added, “It has been great to see all the compassion and friendship people have for him. I’m excited about the people who surround him; it gives you faith and hope that people in Northeast still stick together.”