Why Cancer Survivor O’Connell Will Walk in 2012 Relay for Life

Cancer survivor Abigail Schnell O’Connell, above with daughter Olivia, will on the Relay for Life track with her Live Strong team Feb. 11 and 12.

Abigail Schnell O’Connell didn’t know about the American Cancer Society’s resources when she was diagnosed with stage three melanoma cancer in 2006, but looking back, she wishes she had.

“American Cancer Society is a great resource for people, especially for people who seek medical attention off-island,” said O’Connell. “There are so many facilities to choose from, it’s hard to figure out where to go and how to get there. My doctor told me to ‘Do a little research,’ and I thought, ‘My god, I don’t know what to do.’”

“One thing ACS does is offer support to people and I think just having someone explain the options  would have been a huge help,” she said.

O’Connell and her Team Live Strong is just one of the more than 30 teams expected to pack the Winston Wells ball field starting at 4 p.m. on Saturday, February 11, for the second annual St. John Relay for Life ACS fundraiser.

The event will run for 18 hours before wrapping up at 10 a.m. on Sunday morning, February 12, with the expectation that at least one member from teach team will keep to the make-shift track in the ball field all night long.

Relay for Life events, which are hosted across the country, serve as reminders to communities that “Cancer never sleeps,” while raising funds for the organization. The funds raised at the St. John event remain in the St. Thomas/St. John ACS Chapter and help cancer patients finance off-island travel for treatments while supplying the support which O’Connell missed during her ordeal.

O’Connell’s cancer was first discovered when she found a mole on her leg which had changed shape and color.

“I had a mole on my leg that would change in color and texture at times and it was something I went to my local doctor for,” said O’Connell. “They did a biopsy on it and it came back that it was malignant melanoma and I ended up going off-island for surgery.”

With the mole removed, O’Connell thought her problem was solved. Just about a year later, however, she noticed problems with her lymph nodes.

“About 14 months later the melanoma returned to my lymph nodes,” said O’Connell. “I noticed my lymph nodes in my groin area were enlarged. It started out the size of a golf ball and within a month’s time it quickly progressed.”

“I suspected that something was wrong and I went to my local doctor for a consultation,” she said. “He pretty quickly advised me that I needed to go off-island to have a scan and seek additional care.”

It was 2006 when O’Connell was diagnosed with stage three melanoma. She underwent a lymph excision at a Miami area hospital, which removed most of her lymph nodes on one side of her groin, but she still faced the question of which follow up treatment to pursue and where to have it done.

“After my surgery it was recommended that I have follow up treatment done and that is when I came back to St. John,” said O’Connell. “There was time between having surgery and figuring out what treatment was the right treatment for me and that is where I could have really used help from an organization like ACS. No one in my immediate family or circle of friends had ever experienced this and they didn’t really have any idea what to do.”

“There is not one specific treatment that is recommended post-surgery and they are still researching what is really right for melanoma patients,” she said. “The hospital I went to in Miami told me to ‘Do some research,’ which was not a help. It was so hard to figure out where to go.”

Faced with daunting confusion about post-surgery treatment, it was a family friend who actually helped out in the end, O’Connell explained.

“This small community of St. John is amazing and a good family friend put me in touch with a young man who had the exact same surgery which I did,” she said. “It still would have been very nice to talk to someone about my options and where I could go which is where ACS would have been a big help.”

After being directed to the NYU Cancer Center in New York, O’Connell connected with a dermatologist and oncologist who were facilitating a trial treatment for melanoma.

“NYU was facilitating a trial at that time for monoclonal antibody treatment which teaches your natural antibodies in your system to attack and kill cancer cells,” said O’Connell.

Although O’Connell’s treatment was only one dose, she had side effects for months afterwards and spent several months in New York.  Today she continues to meet with her New York doctors every six months for scans and follow-up visits, but is usually kept busy running around after her six-month-old baby girl Olivia.

“I had Olivia in July 2011, which was just a couple of months before my five year mark of when I was diagnosed,” said O’Connell.

While Olivia might not make it for the entire Relay for Life, O’Connell will certainly be on the track all night long, she explained.

“I will be out on the track for Relay for Life,” said the cancer survivor. “My motivation is really just for awareness. I’d love to help anyone who might be in a similar situation to myself.”

It’s not too late to get involved with the second annual St. John Relay for Life. Luminary bags are available for purchase in The Marketplace most afternoons, stickers are also for sale around the island and on February 11, be sure to be at the Winston Wells ball field for 18 hours of fun, music and entertainment while raising much-needed funds for local cancer patients.