The women sat in a circle, quietly sharing the ways their lives have been affected by three devastating words: “You have cancer.”
For one, the words were so fresh that she couldn’t quite wrap her mind around her situation. For another, those words have been uttered repeatedly and have caused multiple surgeries.
One member of the group, Paula O’Neil — Pasco County’s clerk of the circuit court and county comptroller — had joined the women to share her story. For O’Neil, like for the others, finding out she had breast cancer was a jolt.
“I was totally shocked. I really felt that I led a healthy life,” O’Neil said.
In the area where the cancer was found, O’Neil had been previously screened with a mammogram and a sonogram and had been fine, she said.
Statistics from the American Cancer Society, estimate that about 1.7 million new cancer cases will be diagnosed in 2014, and nearly 1,600 Americans per day are expected to die from the disease.
When O’Neil heard she had breast cancer, she didn’t believe she would die. She said she’d met so many survivors through her association with the American Cancer Society that she didn’t expect that her disease would be fatal.
“I figured I would make it through,” O’Neil said.
But that didn’t mean the experience was easy.
“I think the hardest time is between the time when you find out and you find out what they’re going to do,” she said. “You don’t how far it spread. You don’t know what’s going to happen to you.”
It’s not easy for the family, either.
“When you first find out you have cancer, you and your family, it’s like, ‘Holy cow, are you kidding me?’ And then, you start accepting it,” she said.
Making O’Neil’s case more complicated is the public nature of her work. As clerk of the circuit court, she has a large staff of 150 people and many responsibilities. Before she informed her staff, O’Neil gathered her executive team around her to share her news. She wanted them to help reassure the staff that she was looking good and expected to be OK.
She said she wanted to be sure she controlled the story, so she notified the press.
“When you’re in an elective position, you have to be careful. You don’t want people to think you’re going to die,” O’Neil said. “I wanted the story from myself. I didn’t want rumors.”
She said her initial concerns were about losing a breast and losing her hair. When she found out she needed a mastectomy, she said she pushed for a double mastectomy to avoid having to go through a similar ordeal later.
She was advised, instead, to have genetic testing done to see if she had a genetically inherited trait that made her at high risk for breast cancer. The result was negative, so she was denied the double mastectomy.
Like most cancer patients, O’Neil did not want to lose her hair. Part of the reason was a concern for her appearance because she’s on television every other week, during Pasco County Commission meetings.
“I don’t know if I would have done that with a wig. I didn’t want to look sick. It was real important to me not to look sick,” O’Neil said.
She underwent chemotherapy, but she kept most of her hair.
“I did the chemo cold caps to save my hair. I was able to freeze my scalp to save my hair,” she said. “It thinned. It thinned a lot.”
Patients wear a specially designed cap that is cooled to a very low temperature to constrict the blood vessels to prevent them from carrying the harmful drug agents to the scalp, thus preventing the drugs from damaging the hair follicles.
The chemo cold caps are not covered by every insurance plan, but were covered by hers, O’Neil said.
In addition to the chemotherapy treatments, O’Neil also underwent breast reconstruction, which resulted in an infection in her stomach for six months, she said.
As she shared her story, other women in the group opened up. Some talked about how hard it is to tell others they have cancer. Other women talked about how grateful they are being able to share their experiences at the support group, which meets at The Center for Women’s Health at Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel.
The women shared their pain, but also offered each other practical advice.
For those who have trouble sharing their story, there’s a website called CaringBridge.com that allows communications to be shared with whomever they want to keep in the loop, one woman said.
Another said there’s a website geared to helping organize the contribution of meals by others who care. That’s called, TakeThemAMeal.com.
O’Neil told the women she was honored to meet with them.
“We’ve all been through the same things,” she said. “I can tell you this: It’s not a path I would have chosen, but I’m very grateful, grateful for the experience. It gives you a different perspective on life and on how precious it is.”
O’Neil said she’s always believed she would one day work at a cancer camp for kids. Now, when she does, she’ll be able to relate to them on a deeper level.
“I’ll be able to say, ‘I’ve been through chemo, too,’” O’Neil said.
Published March 26, 2014
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