Apex cancer patient continues his marathon beyond Boston finish line

ablythe@newsobserver.comApril 24, 2014 

Tom O’Donnell, diagnosed with brain cancer in 2009, finished the Boston Marathon on Monday and is preparing to run Duke’s Angels Among Us race on Saturday.

COURTESY OF TOM O’DONNELL

— Tom O’Donnell crossed the Boston Marathon finish line this week reveling in the many stories of resilience along the course.

He marveled at a man on crutches who completed the 26.2 miles.

He talked excitedly about Team Hoyt, the admired father-son duo who completed their 32nd Boston Marathon – with Dick, 73, pushing Rick, his 51-year-old son with cerebral palsy, in a custom-made wheelchair.

“There’re 36,000 people and every one of them has a story – from ordinary people to extraordinary people,” O’Donnell said a day after the race. “The spirit of the marathon; it’s just neat.”

Here in the Triangle, Duke University doctors and health care workers speak just as enthusiastically about O’Donnell.

The 50-year-old Apex resident ran the Boston Marathon on Monday in 3 hours and 17 minutes about a year after being wheeled out of surgery at Duke for brain cancer. Two days before the race, he completed a chemotherapy cycle.

“Tom sort of has become a symbol for patients,” said Dr. Katy Peters, an assistant professor of neurology at the Duke Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke University Medical Center.

For a man who never thought he had a story, O’Donnell’s has become one of the extraordinary ones. It’s a story of a man who received a grim diagnosis and chose to use it to give new meaning to his life.

“To me, it’s a story of hope,” O’Donnell said.

A diagnosis at 45

O’Donnell found out he had cancer in spring 2009. His eye had been twitching for about a year. Though his family doctor told him during a routine examination in 2008 not to worry about it, he sent him for an MRI in Raleigh in 2009.

O’Donnell was working as a manager at a Kerr Drugs store in Pittsboro then, and he went to Raleigh during a lunch break, thinking about the cruise his family was scheduled to take.

Only 45 years old at the time, he had no idea how his life was about to change.

In Raleigh, he was referred to Duke and the health care workers at the Brain Tumor Center that have become like family to him.

Dr. Allan Friedman, the neurosurgeon who operated on the brain tumor of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, removed 60 percent of the “oligodendroglioma,” or cancerous tumor that O’Donnell likes to point out has the word “god” in it.

O’Donnell said he fretted ahead of the time, not knowing what to expect when he came out of the surgery. His physicians joked that if he was not a rocket scientist going in, it was highly unlikely that he would be a rocket scientist afterward.

He worried, though, about losing motor skills.

“Suddenly you have this diagnosis, and you have this surgery where you might not be able to walk,” he said. “You wake up from your surgery. You can wiggle your toes, wiggle your fingers.”

That’s when he decided he had to start running again.

He had run cross country in high school and then some in college. But there were about two decades in between where running was not part of his life. That changed.

Takes a seizure in stride

A few miles turned into a few more miles, and soon he was training for a Tobacco Road Marathon. O’Donnell suffered a seizure before the race, but that did not slow him down.

He made it to the finish line to find family, friends and his oncologist and a physician’s assistant there to celebrate his accomplishment.

Since then, he has run 10 marathons, crossing the finish line in Boston twice – in 2012 and this year. He plans to run the Chicago marathon in the fall and is set to do a 5-kilometer race this weekend that makes him emotional every time he talks about it.

This Saturday marks the 21st Annual Angels Among Us run and family fun walk. The race, described as one of the largest and oldest area running events to benefit medical research, drew more than 5,000 participants last year and raised $2 million for brain tumor research at Duke.

In 2012, O’Donnell raised more than $38,000 for brain tumor research at the Tisch Center.

“How can I not run?” O’Donnell said. “There’re so many reasons why people run. For me it’s because I can.”

“Every patient has a marathon,” he added. “They just have to figure out what their marathon is.”

O’Donnell said his wife, Mary, and college-age daughter, Kerry, sometimes don’t recognize him.

“I’ve changed,” he said.

Peters, his oncologist, said physicians at Duke’s brain tumor center find O’Donnell’s reaction to his diagnosis interesting for many reasons.

“He’s a survivorship story,” Peters said. “I think you have to live. Living is about doing. You have to move and do.”

Exercise as treatment

Peters and Dr. Lee W. Jones, a former Duke physician who recently moved to Sloan Kettering Institute, a cancer research facility in New York, have been studying the effects of exercise and cancer.

O’Donnell said he believes his running – and now the triathlons he competes in – are an important part of his treatment.

“I believe that exercise is all part of it,” O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell does not like to talk about life expectancy in terms of years. When asked about his prognosis, he offers words of inspiration that go beyond one man’s diagnosis and provide a message for all to live by.

“The best answer I can give is what Dr. Friedman gave to me: ‘Go out and live the rest of your life.’ 

That journey, O’Donnell hopes, will be a marathon.

Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1

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