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Cancer Survivor’s Book Chronicles Chain of Support

July 20, 2008

By Dean Kahn, The Bellingham Herald, Wash.

Jul. 20–Treatment for tongue and throat cancer left Brad O’Neill a changed man.

He can no longer grow a beard and his voice is deeper now, fit for a radio announcer.

He lost his thyroid and he no longer has salivary glands, so he always keeps water nearby.

But those are minor inconveniences.

More important was his chance to experience an outpouring of love and support from friends, many of whom expressed their feelings on paper links in a “cancer chain.”

The messages helped O’Neill get through his radiation and chemotherapy, even as the shortening chain reminded him that the painful but necessary sessions would, indeed, come to an end.

“You need support,” he said. “It made all the difference in the world to me.”

O’Neill, 60, and his wife, Diane, are well-grounded in Blaine. They are active in the community and have designed and built dozens of custom homes at Semiahmoo.

O’Neill had always been in good health, until a lump appeared on his throat. He was diagnosed with cancer in May 2006. Surgery was an option, but risks included permanent loss of his voice and of his ability to swallow.

“I’m in trouble,” he recalled thinking. “It’s a nasty location for cancer.”

Instead, he opted for 35 radiation treatments — five times a week for seven weeks — plus several chemotherapy sessions, at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle.

A friend who heard about O’Neill’s plight knew someone else with cancer who removed a link from a paper chain to count down treatment sessions. The O’Neills liked the idea, and Diane expanded it to include a message of support on each link.

Shortly before the start of her husband’s treatment, she e-mailed friends asking for messages.

“It was a way to open the door,” she said, “to say, ‘It’s OK to talk about it.’”

The response: more than 200 messages arrived by e-mail, in the mailbox and at their door.

Messages came printed, typed and handwritten. Some had pictures or drawings. Some were personal notes; others were inspirational quotes.

The messages were linked into 35 groupings.

O’Neill read a handful each morning before friends drove or flew him to Virginia Mason, then back again so he could rest at home before the next session.

During treatment, he lost his voice for more than a month. He lost 40 pounds and his throat burned.

He took nourishment through a feeding tube in his gut.

Slowly, over six months, he regained his strength. Tests, so far, show the cancer is gone.

Determined to thank everyone, O’Neill decided to produce a book about his experience and about the value of the “cancer chain.”"Hope, The Cancer Chain,” was put together by his daughter, Killorn, a graphic artist in Seattle.

It’s a large-format, thin, full-color, engaging celebration of the links, with 55 shown, along with O’Neill’s concise recollections, helpful advice, and photos, lots of photos.

There are photos of his doctors and nurses, the people who flew and drove him to Seattle, family pets, and the many people who sent messages, cooked meals, donated bottled water and helped in other ways large and small.

O’Neill gave signed copies to friends at a get-together last month, and plans to give copies to Virginia Mason. He hopes to sell enough to raise money for cancer research.

If that doesn’t work out, he at least has conveyed his thanks to his friends and his renewed thankfulness for life. “It’s already a winner,” he said.

Contact Dean Kahn at dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or 715-2291.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Bellingham Herald, Wash.

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