Chief kicks cancer butt

Relay for Life

Cancer survivor CPO2 Patrick O'Hara attributes beating pancreatic cancer to the top level of physical shape he is in. He now is using his cancer success story to help others. Seen here he wears a mantra shirt: Cancer Can Pogmathon (Gaelic for kiss my ass).

CPO2 Patty O’Hara knows what it’s like to fight the fight against cancer.

More importantly, he knows what it takes to win.

The sailor of Irish descent chalks up his success in overcoming pancreatic cancer, not to the luck of the Irish, but to being in top mental and physical condition.

He’s beaten incredible odds.

“I am one of the two per cent of people who survive pancreatic cancer. It has a 98 per cent mortality rate,” says CPO2 O’Hara.

His story of survival began in 2005. An avid runner, he had just qualified to run the Boston Marathon and was deep into training when he was posted to CFB Esquimalt from HMCS Ottawa to serve as the Base Regulating Chief Petty Officer.

“Just before leaving for the Base, the physician’s assistant on board Ottawa noticed my eyes looked yellow. I was sent to a doctor who referred me to a specialist,” says CPO2 O’Hara.

As doctors tried to come up with a diagnosis, the situation worsened.

“It got so bad that I turned ‘Homer Simpson’ yellow,” he said. “I was jaundice and continued to lose energy. I had a 24-hour itch from the inside of my body. I couldn’t stop itching.”

On average, CPO2 O’Hara was getting about 15 minutes of sleep per night and was given permission to wear civilian attire in the office at work.

More tests followed and finally a tumour marker test identified the problem – pancreatic cancer.

For CPO2 O’Hara the fight was on. The Irish-bred sailor used a Gaelic mantra – Cancer can Pogmothon (kiss my ass).

“They performed a procedure where they put in a stint to open up the bile ducts. Once I was strong enough they performed a ‘Whipple’ procedure, where they removed  the head of the pancreas, my gall bladder, 12 inches of the duodenum and 17 lymph nodes. This happened one week after my 50th birthday. I also had to go for three chemo sessions a month for six months.”

Normally chemotherapy leaves a patient with very little energy, but for CPO2 O’Hara it took little toll on his body.

He attributes his success in fighting the disease to his physical health.

“When I was diagnosed I was probably the fittest in my life. I was running every day and doing weight training. I never lost the energy to work out. The morning after my operation I had 43 stainless steel staples in my abdomen and I was up walking doing laps of the nurses’ station. I’d take IV and catheter bags with me while I walked. I had so many tubes going in and out of me I looked like an octopus,” he says. “Even during the chemo sessions I would have my chemo treatment and then come back to the office, check emails and phone calls and then go to the gym.”

The mind is the other attribute that helped.

“This experience taught me not to fear death. Death affects the people around you; you have nothing to fear at all, all you’re going to be is dead, you won’t know anything different.

There is no need to sit at home and cry about the fact you have cancer because it doesn’t make the illness any better. It doesn’t cure you. You have to develop the attitude to work through it,” he says.

Normally pancreatic cancer reoccurs within the first couple of years and the whole process of treatment starts again, but CPO2 O’Hara has remained cancer free.

Since he was diagnosed, he competed in four half marathons and is looking forward to running in the Royal Victoria half Marathon in October.

He never did run the Boston Marathon, but he feels he’s won the marathon of life.

“A lot of people have asked if I look at life differently, and no I don’t. For me cancer was a speed bump in the road, and it was something I had to go through. I carried on exactly the same as I was before hand,” he said.

Although cancer has touched his life again. His ex-wife Patti is currently fighting breast cancer and it has spread into bone and liver cancer.

“She has been fighting it since last December and she is getting ready to go back to work. She’s stronger, has a positive attitude and the protocol is doing the job. Her cancer is treatable but not curable, so she will be fighting this for the rest of her life,” he says.

Now CPO2 O’Hara is telling his story to inspire others.

On June 23 he will share his story as a guest speaker during the Canadian Cancer Society’s Relay for Life held in the soccer fields behind Juan de Fuca Recreation Centre. This 12-hour relay involves teams walking laps of the track all night long. The track is lined with luminaries (bags with candles in them) that have a personal message or picture to honour cancer survivors, those who are fighting cancer, or those who have passed away from it.

“I hope to spread to people that pancreatic cancer, as brutal as it is, and as deadly as it is, can be beaten. There are people who are surviving it. The hospitals are finding cures for cancer. Don’t go home and go into a depression. Have the attitude where do we go from here?” he says.

CPO2 O’Hara is walking the relay with his ex-wife and kids.

“I am doing this for the legacy of my children. Their grandfather passed away from cancer, their father survived cancer, and their mother has cancer, so they have to be very careful throughout their lives and keep a close watch on their health.”

CPO2 O’Hara’s team is called “Cancer Can Pogmothon”. Go to click on BC/Yukon, click on the Victoria event and then click on donate now and help him reach his goal of $1,000, support his team or sign up your own team.

Shelley Lipke, Staff Writer

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