Fighting the Beast: O’Neal battles breast cancer

O’Neal’s friends decorated her house with flowers and balloons on the last day of her chemo. Photo from Lori O’Neal

O’Neal’s friends decorated her house with flowers and balloons on the last day of her chemo. Photo from Lori O’Neal

Hope is the thing with feathers…”

Hope is the one, beautiful word tLCN counselor and Student Council adviser Lori O’Neal uses to describe her cancer experience.

O’Neal’s story begins when her mother was 55 and had breast cancer. Fortunately, her mother was able to combat the cancer; O’Neal kept her own eyes open to any signs she might have of the illness. The day after Christmas 2013, O’Neal did a routine self-examination when she discovered a lump on her breast. She went to the hospital that afternoon.

The hospital declared the lump benign, but O’Neal’s intuition said otherwise.

Following her gut, O’Neal went to receive a second opinion at the Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit. After a series of tests and procedures, she had to wait a week for the final answer. That week was scary, she said, there was a lot of crying. It was cancerous.

The surgery was scheduled for March 14, 2014 – a month and a half later.

“I had to realize it was a marathon and to go slow…There’s, like, checkpoints that you hit,” O’Neal explained. “Diagnosis? Check. Tell my family? Check. Tell my friends? Check…”

And so the check list had begun.

By that time, O’Neal had already let a lot of her emotions out from the previous week. As much as possible, she had prepared herself for this outcome-but then again, who can really prepare themselves for anything like this?

Now that the diagnosis was determined, she had to tell other people about it.

“Hearing other people’s reactions would make your reaction,” O’Neal said. “It was tough to digest…[but] the more people you tell, the easier it is to cope with.”

She said she would find herself mimicking the other person’s tears and then wonder why she was crying again; she had already done that.

Jena Amell, co-Stuco adviser and physical education teacher, and Student Council were there for her often, they kept her spirits high. Sweet cards were brought to her and she received many handmade gifts.

“It’s shocking, you don’t realize how much people care about you,” O’Neal said.

The one thing that got her through everything was staying positive. The staff at the hospital was always encouraging and, of course, her friends and family were there for her.

After the wait, the seven-and-a-half hour surgery took place.

During the five days before she was released from the hospital, she was nauseous. The anesthetic made her irritable and loopy, and she was tolerating the pain, she said.

It was the weeks after that were tough. O’Neal was not allowed to lift anything heavier than a coffee pot nor to reach for anything. Through slow steps each week, she regained her abilities.

Doing the simplest activity was a test of patience; she had to have someone there to do everything for her at first. She described it as having a disability for that period of time.

“It gave me a respect and appreciation for people with disabilities,” she said.

Having breast cancer was a positive experience, a sort of life lesson, O’Neal explained. She wishes everyone could experience what she did, but without any of the illness.

“It puts everything into perspective,” she said. “It taught me a lot about my own personal strength. You have to stay patient and positive even when you’re mad.”

Now that she is on the other side of six chemotherapy treatments that lasted until August, her view of cancer has changed. Cancer is no longer the whispered word. Rather it is a time she has grown from, one where she learned to appreciate another perspective.

“Life is not a guarantee; tomorrow’s not a guarantee.” O’Neal said “It’s best to be positive, negativity will not land you anywhere.”