NEW PORT RICHEY – The more we learn about Paula O’Neil, constitutional officer and, lately, poster gal for the Pasco front of the war on cancer, the more there is to learn. What we discovered this week: Behind the unthreatening smile that adorns her campaign literature is – there is no other way to put this – someone not to be trifled with.
We say this not simply because O’Neil, at 57, wields significant influence as Pasco’s clerk of court and comptroller, nor because she demonstrated hardened-steel courage the last six months battling, in public, breast cancer and all that implies.
No, we say this because, when we ask about the boxing gloves she’s wearing in Facebook photographs, on posters and on pink T-shirts being peddled by Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel, she declares not only are they indeed hers, but they’re not the first pair she’s owned.
Says Madame Clerk in the same matter-of-fact tone someone might use to disclose that they are a Presbyterian or a gardener or left-handed, “I’m a kick-boxer. Or, I was a kick-boxer, until this” – she signs a crisscross over her chest, and when her docs give her clearance, she expects to resume this unexpected part of her life.
“It’s great exercise,” O’Neil adds by way of innocent explanation, leaving out the fantasy of transubstantiating the big bag into the Legislature following another round of cuts to county clerks’ budgets.
All of a sudden, “Fight Like A Girl” takes on fresh meaning.
Depicting O’Neil with her dukes up, the tees were the brainchild of Saint Leo University communications chief Maureen Moore, who was inspired by the clerk’s appearance last month at the hospital’s Wellness Day event at Saddlebrook Resort.
Keynoting the event, O’Neil contrasted her story of early detection, aggressive treatment and anticipated survival against those of her less fortunate mom and some clerk’s office employees whose heroics were undone by belated diagnoses and less-advanced treatment options.
“Early detection,” recites O’Neil, her finger wagging, “is the key.” So, despite considering the idea “crazy,” she posed, because T-shirt sales are going into a mammogram fund for under- and uninsured women designed to eliminate at least one excuse for not getting screened.
As with much that motivates her, O’Neil became and remains the ever-so-public face of an intensely private condition from a refreshingly old-fashioned sense of duty to breast cancer’s pioneers.
“They fought the fight,” she says, “and they made it easier for me in so many different ways.”
Among them: “Chemo wasn’t intolerable.”
Chemotherapy infuses poisons precisely calibrated to obliterate cancer cells without killing the patient, but the process packs brutal side effects, including, notoriously, nausea, fatigue and hair loss. But, as she says, cancer patients, doctors and researchers – trailblazers all – discovered how to curb some of chemo’s unpleasantness, and, only weeks past her last (knock wood) treatment, O’Neil – beneath that famous cascade of golden brown waves (still there!) – is eager to share.
For instance: The insulated cold cap thing? It appears to have merit.
Also, take your antinausea pills. “I don’t want to get into gross details here,” she says, “but I never threw up. Not once. When my mom went through it, they didn’t have [the pills] ... and it was awful.”
More? No one warned her about mouth sores and a burning esophagus. Or that the remedy would be as simple as munching ice during treatment. “It’s sort of the same theory as the cold cap,” she says: Chill portions of the body you’d rather didn’t react.
And also, this: Chemotherapy patients get a day-after injection – Neulasta – that encourages bone marrow to crank up production of white blood cells, the body’s key defense against infection. The downsides include injection-site pain, swelling and itching, and, nearly guaranteed, a debilitating head-to-toe deep bone ache. The fix? Load up on Claritin.
Recommended only as a prophylactic against injection-site reactions, O’Neil swears after she prepped with Claritin, she never again experienced that run-over-by-a-PCPT-bus agony, and she doesn’t care why.
Add the fairly recent development of reconstructive surgery coinciding with mastectomies and you’re stripping the mask off a horrifying, isolating unknown. Education isn’t just power, O’Neil now knows from personal experience; it’s reassuring. So she soldiers on.
Because even when the T-shirts are gone, the war rages on.