Blaine man recovers from cancer, shares hope in book
By Jack Kintner
Fifteen minutes before leaving on a fishing trip last week, Brad O’Neill got word from his doctor that he is completely free of cancer three years after first noticing a lump in his neck.
O’Neill attributes a big part of his continuing recovery to a network of friends who contributed links in a paper chain on which they’d written encouraging notes, something that forms the basis of a book called “Hope, The Cancer Chain.”
O’Neill wrote the text and self-published the book well before being found cancer free. He began the project in concert with his family after reaching his low point physically and psychologically in July of 2006, not long after completing 35 weeks of radiation and chemotherapy treatments in Seattle.
O’Neill said he had four goals in mind, to spread the idea of having a visual way to count-down the cancer treatments, to give friends a way to participate in the healing with good wishes without intruding on the patient’s privacy, to thank his friends who did so and to raise money through the sale of the book for cancer research.
“After I completed treatments we had all these links for the chain from friends, and got to talking at a family meal about what we should do,” he said, “and this book was the result.”
The project was directed and the final product was designed by his daughter Killorn, owner of the Seattle graphic design studio koMEDIA, but “it was a family project throughout,” he said, “and not without some intense discussions.”
The book came out last June at a party the O’Neills hosted at the Blaine Boating Center, but last week’s news “was a huge psychological threshold, to be clean and clear two years into the treatment. And I caught three king salmon!,” the custom home builder and former Blaine planning commission member said, laughing.
The book is deceptively simple appearing at first, just 24 pages long and filled with brilliant graphics. O’Neill said he wanted to write his story to fill a gap he felt as a patient, when well-intentioned friends offered him books to read about cancer patients when they heard the news. “I’ve never, ever been seriously sick before,” he said, “but here I was, facing all the uncertainties and unknowns. I felt overwhelmed, and the last thing I wanted to do was read a novel. I wanted something that would be accessible and helpful to the patient.” He feels that the over-size format with fewer but colorful pages lends itself to reading and re-reading even by people who are fatigued by treatments.
The idea of a cancer chain came from a friend who told Brad and wife Diane about someone who had devised a visual reference to the number of treatments left by making a paper chain, one loop representing one treatment. Diane and Killorn modified that by asking friends to contribute links in the chain with encouraging words written on them. The book is divided on most pages into four parts with photos of the chains in the two outside panels and O’Neill’s narrative in the middle.
Each pair of pages has a complete chapter, making it easy to read by a person who’s flat on his back in bed and exhausted. It has the informality and brilliance of a scrapbook coupled with the gravity of O’Neill’s narrative that covers a very serious time in his life.
The book, off-set printed by LithoCraft Press in Seattle, show 55 of the more than 200 links O’Neill collected in a way that makes them seem as if they are sitting on the page ready to be picked up. O’Neill’s writing, which his family edited, has an informal style that draws the reader into what’s a highly personal experience that can only fully be known from the inside, and, one assumes, speaks effectively to others undergoing the two steps forward, one step back uncertainties of cancer treatments.
O’Neill also keeps the book within reach of most readers who are undergoing emotional turmoil by not giving advice, just providing an example of his own path through diagnosis, treatment and his recovery thus far. “Cancer patients are all different, but what brings them together, what we all share, is hope, which is where the name comes from,” he said.
The proof of the pudding, O’Neill said, is that as he and Diane make their regular trips to Seattle for follow-up procedures they’ve left more than 200 copies of the book in waiting rooms and other areas where cancer patients will find them, and they’re always all gone within a few days. Many who have purchased the $19.95 volume online return to buy more, once they’ve read it, to be given away. Virginia Mason Medical Center, where O’Neill received his therapy, has purchased an additional 130 copies to be given to patients.
“There’s nothing like this kind of experience to really set some priorities in your life,” O’Neill said, adding “You just don’t sweat the small stuff any more.” O’Neill’s cancer was located at the base of his tongue and neck, a tricky place to treat. It originally was diagnosed as a cyst on the nerve that controls swallowing.
“If that had been true, I’d be on a feeding tube for the rest of my life instead of just through anti-cancer treatments,” he said, “so I actually was glad to get the cancer diagnosis, which is serious but more treatable, from the team of physicians at Virginia Mason. My response to treatment proved them right.”
O’Neill said he first saw the finished book on a family trip to Ireland earlier this year, at a place in Dublin billed as “possibly the world’s smallest pub,” when Killorn pulled it out and said, “This is as good a place as any for the book to debut.”
Since then, O’Neill said, she’s shown it as an example of her work, sometimes seeing potential clients in the highly competitive graphic design world in Seattle lose their gruff demeanor, more than once dissolving into tears and saying, “I had cancer, too.”
The book is available on-line at www.thehopechain.com.