Of all the harrowing tales that shaped Pasco County in 2013, none outstripped Paula O’Neil’s for courage, resolve, faith and good humor. Even as the rest of us stood gape-mouthed and horror-struck, we learned from O’Neil’s example what it is to exhibit grace under unspeakable pressure.
Breast cancer, much a part of her family’s medical history, caught up with O’Neil, 57, in May. In keeping with the hard-wiring that makes her reliable, efficient and admirably organized as Pasco’s clerk of court and comptroller (in other words, the county’s chief record keeper and check writer), O’Neil dealt with this upheaval by systematizing it.
We should all be so rational.
Everything she did during the six months from detection to emerging from her last round of chemotherapy went according to a meticulously sculpted plan. OK, so it was her team at Moffitt Cancer Center that did most of the scheduling, but O’Neil proved a willing accomplice, the orderly eye of calm surrounded by a hurricane of surgeons, oncologists, nurses, technicians and personal cheerleaders.
As we wrote after a post-operative recliner-side visit to her Bayonet Point home in July:
“We have been watching, with equal measures of anxiety, well-wishes, prayers and rueful curiosity, how our local pillar of cheerful efficiency would respond to the diagnosis in May that she had breast cancer, a disease whose very nature is chaos.
“To our relief (if not to our surprise), here, too, O’Neil means to enforce order.”
Well, good for her.
It was, after all, relentless application of her tedious schedule of self-examination that detected the tumor boiling away in the first place. Nobody was going to catch Paula O’Neil not practicing — “Early detection is the key; ignoring cancer won’t make it go away” — what she tirelessly preached as the past chairwoman of Pasco’s contribution to the annual Making Strides Against Breast Cancer rally.
You could make an argument that O’Neil saw it coming. She witnessed her mom succumb to the grisly disease at the age of 52. Horrified, grief-stricken and not just a little bent for vengeance, she vowed she’d never let cancer catch her unawares, and she didn’t.
But breast-cancer awareness wasn’t just for her. Antenna up and acutely tuned, she came to know with applied compassion clerk’s office employees who were stricken and survived, and others who did not. “Everyone knows someone,” she said in July, “who has been diagnosed with cancer.”
Repeating what we wrote then, with O’Neil’s very public diagnosis, the circle of familiarity exploded.
She spent the summer enduring chemotherapy, maintaining her good cheer by predisposition and force of will, and her trademark golden brown waves by application of an ice cap. Such are the hard-learned lessons of chemo: Chomping ice preserves your taste buds while preventing mouth sores and easing esophageal discomfort. Cold compresses on the head appear to preserve hair follicles.
And when she’d finished her last session — when she’d rung Moffitt’s ritual bell, knowing so many others never had the pleasure or knew the relief — O’Neil was just getting warmed up. With new authority, she spoke out for early detection. And with steely resolve and a jaw set just so, she posed in pink boxing gloves for a picture that graced — there is no other word — T-shirts (to fund mammograms) sold in the gift shop of Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel.
So our education goes on. About breast cancer, and about one remarkable Pasco public figure who demonstrated how survival can be fashionable.