By Shelby Stewart
As a wrestling referee for nearly three decades, Frank Olson has witnessed many epic battles on the mat.
But a recent match Olson participated in was not fair, not on a mat and required an enduring spirit.
In September of 2017, Olson found that his lymph nodes were swollen.
“The doctor said to go for a cancer test,” said Olson. “They did a biopsy down in Pontiac and it was cancer.”
Olson, an Ortonville resident for 28 years, is also a veteran referee for the All American Athletic Association. He refs wrestling meets all over southeast Michigan, including Brandon School meets.
“It didn’t start in my neck,” he said. “It started at the base of my tongue.”
Olson explained that the only way to surgically remove all of the cancer would have been to cut his tongue out, so instead he was cut from ear to ear so the doctors could remove all of his lymph nodes, and then in January of 2018 through March, he went through radiation and chemo treatments. “I had a feeding tube for six months,” he said. “Until the end of July. I had to teach myself how to eat and swallow, I lost 34 pounds, and just before Thanksgiving I had to have my throat stretched.” Olson also said that because of all he went through, he doesn’t produce nearly as much saliva as he used to.
“You don’t really realize what saliva does for you until you don’t have it,” he added.The cancer, called Squamous Cell Carcinoma, is actuallya form of skin cancer, but it is possible to get the cancer anywhere on the body, including in the mouth. “It’s a cancer that’s on the up-rise,” he said. “While most cancers are decreasing, this one isn’t. It’s a virus, everybody gets this virus, it’s just most people fight it off.”
Though Olson was diagnosed with stage four of this cancer, the strain is also 80 percent curable.
“Some people handle it better than others,” said Olson. “They said I would probably lose my taste and I didn’t, but I can’t open my mouth very far, I can’t turn my neck very much. Chemo for the head and neck affects the body the most.”
After all of his treatments, Olson had to do swallowing exercises seven times a day, since he lost the muscle memory to do so during surgery and treatment and having a feeding tube.
“Carmanos is where I had my treatment,” he said. “Awesome place. Couldn’t ask for anything better.”
In addition to losing his ability to swallow after treatments, he also lost his job.
“I went back to work for a few days last January, but then I was sick so often, I was working in automotive and I was on short term disability,” said Olson. “They said they definitely wanted me back, but when I was ready to go back to work, they said they didn’t have a position to hire me back in.” Olson also owns a construction company, and shifted his focus to construction after losing his job.
He also still referees weekly.
“I’ve had 29 years as a ref, and I coached for seven,” he said. “It’s just the love of wrestling. I’m not in shape enough to wrestle anymore. I’m hoping I’ll have at least 30 years in. I ref with guys who have been reffing for 40 years.”
Olson has refereed at about 15 state finals, and he does regular meets usually two week days and every Saturday wherever he is needed. “I started wrestling when I was in seventh grade, and into college and a little after college,” he said.
“I got into coaching in college, too. I was the first wrestling coach at St. Mary’s, in 85, and then I was in Lake Orion for a few years. While working, it was tough to be a coach if you’re not a teaching. Reffing, I can make my own schedule.”
Olson’s son also wrestled for Brandon before he graduated, and was all state his senior year. “He’s concentrating on his studies,” said Olson. “It’s not like football or something where there’s something after college, with wresting, college is it.”