Inspiration from the past: Fight against cancer has unlikely beginning

Inspiration from the past: Fight against cancer has unlikely beginning

Team Olbum proudly displays its inspiration. (Photo provided)
Team Olbum proudly displays its inspiration. (Photo provided)

Four decades ago, Carolyn Olbum returned to school. An aspiring sculptor and mother of three, Olbum needed help at home. An ad was placed for a housekeeper. Georgia Doe’s sister-in-law spotted the ad and passed it along.

Georgia Doe’s circumstances were dire. She had come from the South, illiterate and uneducated. Underdressed for Pittsburgh’s winter weather, she approached the Olbums’ door on Fair Oaks Street.

“This is a woman who came up from the South in ’64, ’65, from an abused situation with a sweater on her back, in a cotton dress with a cracked black patent leather purse in December,” recalled Olbum, now 77. “It’s hard for me to talk about her without crying.”

Olbum opened the door of her Squirrel Hill home. She welcomed in Doe, 20 years her senior, and showed the older woman around. When they passed the telephone, terror arose in Doe’s eyes.

“We didn’t have an answering machine,” said Olbum, “and she didn’t know how to take a message.”

Doe had never attended school. A descendant of slaves, she could barely write.

Olbum reassured Doe that message recording was not an issue and that the two could work around the matter.

 Doe accepted the position with the Olbums and became an integral part of their family.

“She helped raise my children,” said Olbum.

Doe had no children of her own. After the youngest Olbum child had grown, Doe left and returned home to the South.

“She told me people have to be with their own,” said Olbum.

Despite the distance, the parties remained close.

“There are a lot of great memories, and humor, and sadness,” said Olbum.

In the early 1990s, nearly three decades after the relationship began, the Olbums learned of Doe’s illness. Several times they traveled south to see their former housekeeper. Quickly, Doe’s health worsened, and in 1993 she passed away. Doe’s battle with lung cancer was devastating for Olbum. Unfortunately, Olbum would eventually better understand.

A daily battle

“I divide my life B.C. and A.C.,” said Olbum, “before cancer and after cancer.”

In 2005, during a visit with her grandson, Olbum began coughing. Her grandson suggested that she see a doctor. Olbum obliged, and though her chest X-ray was clear, she believed that something was wrong. Persistent, she returned to her doctor. A CT scan was ordered, and a tumor was found.

Olbum had developed Stage 1 lung cancer. Like Doe years earlier, Olbum began battling the disease.

For four months, Olbum underwent weekly chemotherapy sessions. In the decades since, she had returned to school, Olbum had become a renowned sculptor; however, after the diagnosis, she changed activities and took a break from the art.

“I did as much for myself every day as I could,” she recalled.

Olbum began walking and sewing.

“I kept myself occupied and gave back,” she said.

She made hats and neck gaiters for fellow cancer patients. Called Carolyn’s Pin-ups, she sold the items and donated the proceeds.

Eventually, Olbum’s illness subsided. Now, nine years later, she is cancer-free. Olbum has returned to sculpting, but she has also begun writing.

Currently, she is undertaking two literary ventures: One is about her grandparents and the history of the Hill District; the other is about Doe, her housekeeper from years earlier.

“It is my memories of my relationship with my housekeeper,” she explained. “It is something I had to write because it’s important she’s remembered.”

Free to Breathe

Two weeks ago, friends and family of Olbum’s gathered in the North Hills. The group of 14 lined up to take part in the 2nd Annual Free to Breathe Pittsburgh 5K and 1-mile walk.

“I invited everyone to join me,” said Olbum.

Free to Breathe is a nonprofit organization that describes itself as a “partnership of lung-cancer survivors, advocates, researchers, healthcare professionals and industry leaders.”

Olbum credits the organization for much of her health.

“Free to Breathe, at its early stages then helped me,” she said. “Through these past years it has grown to provide more patient advocacy, most valuable fellowships and greater participation in various programs.”

What interests Olbum most is pre-testing for cancer.

“I’m an advocate for pre-testing, especially those who are high risk,” she explained. “And that doesn’t necessarily mean smokers.

“When my housekeeper of many years died in 1993 of lung cancer, no pre-testing was done then,” she added. “I want to save people’s lives.”

As Olbum’s team of friends and family started walking along their 5K route, Olbum noticed something.

“Two of my teammates walked farther [than 5K],” she related. “They missed the turn off because they were too busy talking, and they are older than me.”

The team regrouped as the photographer approached. Olbum and her family and friends gathered round. They reached for the sign bearing their name. The sun shone down, and as the members of Team Olbum clutched the board and raised it up, the words became clear: “In Memory of Georgia Doe.”

(Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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