San Diego Health - Spring 2024


centimeters. She also had two lymph nodes removed, one of which was cancerous. Th is upgraded her stage 1 breast cancer to stage 2 and altered the next step on her treatment path. “When we stage breast cancer, we initially tell patients what their clinical stage is. It isn’t until a ft er surgery that we fully understand the size of the tumor and whether the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes. Th ose two things impact whether or not chemotherapy should be considered,” Dr. Costantini explains. “When Kelly fi rst came in, she made it very clear that she was going to take care of this and get back to her life. We agreed and respected her desire to be as aggressive as possible,” she continues. “Her case was not clear cut—there was a lot of risk versus bene fi t analysis—but it was her outlook that she wanted to do everything she could right away because she never wanted to see cancer again. A ft er surgery, when we found it in the lymph node, chemotherapy became a more bene fi cial option.” In true fi ghter fashion, O’Connor faced chemotherapy head on. Fourteen days a ft er her fi rst treatment, her hair started falling out. She leaned on her personal support team for strength. “Right away, my awesome stepkids wanted to shave my head, and they gave me a mullet. I had this feeling like, ‘ Th is is so liberating. I had long blonde hair and now I have a buzz.’ But then I was bald. I didn’t like wearing a wig, so I just decided to go out bald and not be embarrassed. People were so kind, but I caught myself in the mirror, and I was so skinny and bald. I was really uncomfortable because at that moment, I didn’t know who that person was anymore. I looked like I had cancer,” she recalls through tears. “But then one day I looked in the mirror, and for the fi rst time, I knew her again. In that moment of rediscovering who I was, it was an explosion of self-love. I had more joy than fear, and that set the tone for the rest of my new life. It’s counterintuitive to fi ght for your life and not live it because you’re paralyzed with fear.” Once O’Connor fi nished her course of chemotherapy, she went back to work, eager to get back to the passion she had for her career. She intended to immerse herself in her work again, and then tackle radiation as the fi nal step in her cancer journey. Th en she was hit by another shocking revelation: Just as her life had changed with her cancer diagnosis, so had her passion. “I went into work and realized that my passion for the job was completely gone. It was surprising—it was all I knew!” she says. “But a good leader knows when it’s time to step down, and I resigned. I had this inner voice that told me I needed to be in a place to help. Th at’s when I started volunteering.”

“Cancer happened for me, not to me. It made me a better person, a better woman and someone who genuinely loves life. That is an absolute gift. And I needed to find a way to pay it forward.” KELLY O'CONNOR


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