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He survived the Camp fire. Now he's determined to beat brain cancer with a new medical team

He survived the Camp fire. Now he's determined to beat brain cancer with a new medical team
Olav Johannessen, 85, escaped the Camp fire that devastated Paradise in Northern California, but he had to leave his cancer care team behind. (Eduardo Contreras/ The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Olav Johannessen’s fast action saved his life. As wildfire swept into Paradise in Northern California, the former Oceanside resident fled with the clothes on his back.

“We saw fire on both sides of the road as we drove to Chico,” said Johannessen, 85. “There were people who were slower and they didn’t make it.”

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While he was out of the Camp fire, he was not out of the woods. A brain cancer patient, Johannessen had been in his oncologist’s waiting room in Paradise on Nov. 8 when he heard the evacuation order. Soon, the medical offices — and most of the town — were reduced to ash.

The timing was terrible. While fleeing to safety, Johannessen left behind the medical team that has been managing his care.

Three weeks earlier, surgeons in Chico had removed a tumor from his brain. The day of the fire, he was supposed to start radiation and chemotherapy.

“His medical oncologist, his radiation oncologist, his neurologist — none of those doctors were reachable after the fire,” said Jenna Lavaliere, Johannessen’s daughter. “There was a double sense of emergency: a, to get him out and, b, to get him into treatment.”

Within days, Jenna and her husband Gary Levaliere had moved her father to their home near Lake Murray in San Diego County and set him up with a new medical team. During the journey south, the Lavalieres contacted Johannessen’s surgeon in Chico, asking him for a referral to San Diego-based oncologists.

They opted for Scripps MD Anderson Cancer Center in La Jolla. “And the next thing I know,” Jenna Lavaliere said, “I’m on the phone with a wonderful nurse navigator.”

Before he even arrived in Southern California, Johannessen had an appointment with his new medical team.

Glioblastoma is a brain cancer known for its speed and ferocity. Only about 25% of patients are still alive two years after diagnosis, estimated Dr. Chien Peter Chen, a radiation oncologist with Scripps MD Anderson.

Glioblastoma, though, has never tackled anyone quite like Olav Johannessen. In his mid-80s, the former construction firm owner is determined to live — and on his own terms.

After his wife died, Johannessen left their Oceanside home more than a decade ago. In the Sierra Nevada foothills, he moved into a prefabricated home beneath Paradise’s towering jack pines.

Johannessen quickly grew enamored with Paradise. He remodeled his new home, building a living room and shop. He liked the changing seasons, the relaxed pace of life. He enjoyed chopping wood and dancing at the Italian Garden, a restaurant in Paradise’s modest downtown.

When you meet him, he delivers a crushing handshake with his left hand.

His right hand went numb this summer. “I thought I had hurt my elbow,” he said.

Unfortunately, that was not the case. In September, he was diagnosed with a tumor in his brain’s left hemisphere.

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Today, he’s under no illusions about his chances. “I don’t expect to be whole again,” he said this week. “But I hope to be able to function.”

His daughter, having spent decades watching her father overcome challenges, is more upbeat.

“He will go about the business of getting stronger,” she predicted, “and living the quality of life that this treatment is buying him.”

At Scripps MD Anderson, Johannessen was assigned an oncologist; a radiation oncologist, Dr. Chen; and a nurse navigator who is there to answer patients’ and family members’ questions.

On Tuesday, staffers fitted Johannessen with a mask that will keep his head immobile as radiation is applied.

He’ll undergo those treatments five days a week, across three weeks. At the same time, he’ll have chemotherapy. While the chemo eventually will be scaled back, it will continue for at least a year.

“We’ll be keeping a close eye on him,” Chen said. “He’ll be here for at least a year, maybe two years.”

Longer term, what are his plans? The Camp fire destroyed more than 10,000 homes, including Johannessen’s place and all his belongings, including a mint-condition 1968 Ford pickup he had bequeathed to his daughter.

“There’s a small chance” he’ll return to Northern California, Johannessen said. “I can’t move too far from my daughter.”

She laughed. “Go ahead and dream about all the things you can do,” Jenna Lavaliere said. “It’s good for you to think about that.”

Olav Johannessen lost his home and all his possessions. But living with family and being treated by a new medical team, he’s found life after Paradise.

Rowe writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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