By Joe Potter
Zephyrhills resident Michael O’Donnell can finally look ahead to his future just after the one-year anniversary of being diagnosed with a form of cancer uncommon for people his age.
O’Donnell, 23, hopes to be a law enforcement officer either with the Zephyrhills Police Department or the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office. He learns in a few weeks if he has been accepted into the Police Academy at Pasco-Hernando Community College.
O’Donnell’s cancer was diagnosed in October 2008 and part of his tongue was removed along with a muscle in his neck. A lump was discovered on his neck eight months later in May 2009 during a follow-up visit with his doctor. Surgery was not an option because the cancerous tumor was located near his carotid artery and he was treated instead with radiation and chemotherapy.
Before the cancer diagnosis, the Zephyrhills native was a brawny 200-pounder in top physical condition. He lost 50 pounds in less than a month while undergoing radiation and chemotherapy and agreed to a feeding tube only after losing 55 pounds.
Now O’Donnell says he feels physically and mentally able to successfully complete the police academy, which will move him a step closer to his career goal.
“I figure if I made it through cancer without having insurance or anything like that and not being able to work, I can tough it out through school which requires six to eight months,” O’Donnell said.
O’Donnell is currently on temporary disability and is receiving financial assistance from Medicaid to pay for his medical care.
If school does not work out, he will find a job, O’Donnell said, adding, “I’m not a man opposed to working. I like to work.”
While reflecting back on the last 12 months, O’Donnell said, “It’s been a very enlightening process to say the least. The last year had its ups and downs.”
O’Donnell hated to admit it, but there were some moments when he wished he would have died because he was in so much pain. There were times when he felt like he was fighting a losing battle.
He is grateful for the support his wife, Sarah, his parents, his sisters, and many others provided him during the past year. He said his health situation impacted his family emotionally. To them, he said, it looked like he was dying and they were powerless to do anything about it.
“I had to keep telling myself, ‘I’m not going anywhere,’” O’Donnell said. “This is not going to beat me. I’ll fight it to the end.”
That attitude and mental toughness combined with his religious faith helped him to beat the disease, O’Donnell said.
“Every night before I go to bed I make sure I get on my knees and I pray to God and I tell him, ‘Lord, thank you for the day that I had,’” O’Donnell said. “Whether it was a good day or a bad day, I had another day, there are a lot of people out there who are worse off than I am.”
Not having medical insurance could have placed him in debt for years to come. However, his parents helped out.
“Thankfully, Florida Cancer Center worked with me and helped the process along to get me qualified for Medicaid,” O’Donnell said. “That’s another thing I thank God for because if we had not had (Medicaid) I don’t know what we would have done. I also thank God for my aunt and uncle and my family putting together a golf tournament that was able to raise funds that went into a medical bill pay account.”
During the early stages of his cancer treatment, Medicaid placed him on a plan where he had to pay a portion of the costs.
“Every month when I had to see the doctor that medical bill pay account (from the golf tournament) came in so handy. Without it, we would not have the money to cover the doctor’s bills,” O’Donnell said.
The tournament was last September at Silverado Golf & Country Club in Zephyrhills. After Medicaid realized how expensive his radiation and chemotherapy treatments were, the federal agency took over all of the costs. Now, he is back on a cost-sharing plan since he has finished his treatments.
O’Donnell remarked that he has a roof over his head, a wife who loves him, a family who cares about him and that he is looking forward to his future.
Things are “so much better” now than they were last May, Sarah O’Donnell said during a telephone interview from Michigan.
“He has been gaining weight, he’s feeling better and he’s happier,” Sarah. The couple will celebrate their second wedding anniversary in August.
The lowest point of the last 12 months was probably when Michael had to begin using a feeding tube because he had lost so much weight, Sarah O’Donnell said. The feeding tube was removed last December. February 2010 was a pivotal month for Michael because that’s when he was able to resume eating some of the spicy foods he enjoys, Sarah O’Donnell said.
O’Donnell’s battle against cancer has changed his outlook on life. He is now more willing to accept help from others. Previously, he had thought he had to do anything in life he wanted to without help from anyone else.
“I’m very grateful that I had the amount of people and the kind of people in my life that were willing to give us, my wife and I, the help that we needed,” O’Donnell said. “I really don’t know what we would have done if we hadn’t had that help.”