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A Success Story - Conor O'Neill

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Conor O'Neill

       Conor has graduated from the University of Kentucky, in Lexington, Kentucky, majoring in Biology/Pre-Med.  His experience with cancer has motivated him to go into the field of oncology to help pediatric cancer patients, giving them hope and encouragement as a cancer survivor.  He has survived Rhabdomyosarcoma.  In his own words:

“Winning the lottery is not always what you expect ...

Rhabdomyosarcoma is the most common soft tissue sarcoma diagnosed in children, still there are only about 350 kids in the U.S. diagnosed with it each year.  With those kinds of odds, I guess you could say I “won” a cancer lottery in January 2007 when I was diagnosed with embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma of the left orbit.  I was genuinely lucky that the tumor was easily noticed as a rapidly growing mass under my eye, so my parents were able to see that there was something wrong early on.  Before I was diagnosed, my world pretty much revolved around competitive soccer. I had a bright future as a successful soccer player; in the 2005 state championship game I scored four goals and we beat our opponent 6-0.  My plan was to play Division I soccer in college, and I hadn’t given much thought to my course of study or what profession I wanted to pursue as an adult.

But cancer made me put soccer on hold for awhile, and one of the quickest lessons I learned from my experience was to cherish and appreciate small moments in time that I used to take for granted. As a 13-year old going through chemotherapy and radiation treatment, I learned to appreciate the rare times my throat didn’t feel like it was on fire after I vomited colors I never knew existed. I learned to value days when I could get out of bed and visit my teammates at soccer practice and encourage them. The fresh air always felt and smelled wonderful, and if was a little cold, windy, or rainy, it didn’t matter to me – I was out there and it made me feel better! I also learned to love the feeling of conquering a challenge, even if it was as small as drinking an entire protein milkshake when everything I ate that week tasted like metal. I learned that these are the moments that matter.

Like a lot of cancer patients, I lost my hair during chemotherapy, which made me look and feel different. I spent the second half of my eighth grade year being home-schooled, but close to the end of the year I was allowed to go back and visit some of my friends and classmates for one day.  I got stared at – two of my school mates even made fun of me – so I felt the shame and embarrassment of being “different” firsthand. That experience helped teach me about true friendship, but it also gave me great empathy for the situations that minorities or other people considered “different” find themselves in. It taught me to appreciate and value an individual, regardless of their race, class, health, or religion.

I’m a survivor now - nearly five years after my final treatment. As a result of my experience, as well watching my fellow cancer patients go through their own versions of treatment hell, I have a clearer vision of what’s important in life and where I want my focus to be as an adult.  I’m committed to studying medicine in college so I can help other people who are sick.  The classes I’ve taken in high school are science- and math-oriented, and I have taken advanced placement courses where available. I know that challenging myself in high school has prepared me to be better able to handle the rigorous class schedule in college as I pursue the type of degree that will allow me to reach my academic and professional goals.

I am strongly considering going into oncology and becoming a physician or nurse who works with pediatric cancer patients. I believe that having a doctor or mentor who has gone through a similar experience can be very inspirational for cancer patients, especially children.  One of the hardest things I had to deal with in my treatment was keeping up hope that there was ever going to be an end to the needles, vomiting and nausea that comes with the medicine designed to make you “get better.”  Being a living example that there is light at the end of the tunnel can send a powerful, inspirational message to many young cancer patients.

I have great empathy for others' feelings, and being a cancer survivor has helped me develop a mental toughness that is rare in someone my age.  However, cancer doesn't define me - it never did, and it never will.

So while cancer probably robbed me of my dream of playing Division I soccer, it actually put me on a far greater path, one of helping others deal with a nasty disease that no one can understand why it afflicts those who are cursed by it.

Thank you, Cancer Survivors' Fund. There will be many of my future patients you will be helping work through their cancer treatments with more hope and more compassion.  Thank you for helping me achieve my goals!”

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