Local residents have organized fundraisers to help a state trooper combat his blindness and cancer.
Sgt. Tom O’Connor, 41, of Monroeville, was diagnosed with chondrosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, in March 2007. Doctors found a tumor in his sacrum at the base of his spine that was “the size of a grapefruit,” Tom said.
Complications arose during surgery to remove the tumor, rendering Tom totally blind with post-operative posterior bilateral ischemic optic neuropathy.
Tom had radiation treatments for about three months after the surgery and was being scanned every three months to see if the cancer had returned.
In July, the O’Connors discovered the chondrosarcoma had returned and metastasized to five different sites in his body. The cancer was classified as aggressive stage four.
Doctors discovered tumors on Tom’s left femoral head, which is near the hip; on his right hip bone; on his T-9 vertebrae; by his shoulder, on his left humerus; and on his right anterior rib. Based on a needle biopsy, doctors said Tom’s sacrum was suspicious for a return of chondrosarcoma as well.
Tom can feel the tumor on his rib.
“It’s like an acorn. It hurts.”
Tom and his wife, Jen, say the cancer and blindness are devastating.
“It’s turned my life upside down,” Tom said. “We felt like we were at the top of everything.”
His marriage and family with children Ryan, 7, and Delaney, 5, was “perfect, and it was all ripped away because of the cancer and the blindness,” he said.
“Our situation’s unique,” Jen said. “It’s the cancer and the blindness together that impact everything.”
“Blindness really compounds all of the problems,” Tom said. “Everyone knows someone with cancer, but take a rare cancer and blindness and it makes everything 100 times worse.”
A state counselor for the blind denied Tom any adaptive technology equipment or training to assist him with his blindness, which he said could make his life closer to normal.
“That would have got me ready to go back to work …. The state counselor denied me the ability to be independent.”
To survive the cancer, Tom said, he takes 35 pills a day for pain, nerve damage and digestion. He already has had radiation on his femoral head, humerus and T-9 vertebrae.
Beginning Friday, Tom will take an experimental drug, Dasatinib, in an attempt to decrease and stop the cancerous activity. The drug has not yet been FDA-approved.
Tom said he has painful neuropathy in his leg and cannot sit or stand for long periods. Although he still is able to walk, when he and his family go on long trips, he takes a wheelchair. He has to attend physical therapy twice a week.
The expenses of treating the cancer and blindness have resulted in financial hardship.
“My concern is the house,” Jen said. “It’s not the Taj Mahal, but it’s our home.”
“We thought we had everything,” Tom said, “and to think we might lose everything is unconscionable.”
Numerous people have been active in helping the O’Connors.
Joe Ruggery, Tom’s co-worker and friend, is entering the Subaru 24-Hour Champion Challenge mountain bike race and has listed the O’Connor family as his charitable interest. The race is at noon on Aug. 30 at Seven Springs Mountain Resort.
While most cyclists will compete in team relay categories, Joe is entering solo.
“What he’s doing is big,” Tom said.
A neighborhood youth group, sponsored by the Baha’is of Pittsburgh, was looking for a project to help a neighbor. Lu Randall, whose son is in the youth group and who knew Jen from Foxwood Pool, suggested the group help the O’Connors.
The children decided to raise money to buy a piece of blind-assistance equipment for Tom. The youth group held a yard sale at the homes of Lu and her neighbors on Aug. 9 to raise money.
A group member created a host page on the Facebook online social network for “Friends of the O’Connors.” The page spread info about the yard sale and the community effort to help Tom and his family through Gateway High School students, alumni, parents and teachers.
When people learned of the yard sale, they began hosting independent yard sales not associated with the youth group and donated proceeds to the O’Connors. Even people in Plum have sent money, the O’Connors said.
With yard sales going on simultaneously, Tom said, his neighborhood “had the atmosphere of a street sale.”
“The yard that Saturday surpassed expectations,” Lu said.
She hopes what she calls the “contagious yard sales” will continue. Lu said another “Yard Sales for Tom” event will be scheduled for September along Towerlawn Drive.
The O’Connors said they cannot thank the neighbors enough.
“This is the good that has come out of this bad situation,” Jen said.
The O’Connors will place proceeds from the yard sale and donations from future events into the Sgt. Tom O’Connor Family Fund at PNC Bank.
As for the future, Tom said, “I don’t have any real expectation for longevity. We’re praying for a miracle.”
He said doctors do not know how long he has to live.
“There’s only one person who knows for sure, and that’s God.”
“It’s just so rough to deal with,” Jen said.
Tom has been battling cancer since 1996, when he was diagnosed with malignant melanoma on the upper side of his back. That was treated, and he was cancer-free until January 2007, when he was diagnosed with invasive malignant melanoma.
Tom underwent surgery to remove his sentinel lymph nodes because the melanoma was spreading. It was months after that urgery when doctors discovered the chondrosarcoma. Tom said his previous skin cancer and his current bone cancer are unrelated.
He thinks the situation is harder for his wife and children to deal with than it is for him.
“They have to deal with their own grieving process and deal with mine and the problems associated with the cancer and the blindness.”
Jen said the situation is harder for Tom.
“Just seeing (Tom) in the emotional pain is the hardest thing for me.”
Cancer has caused a lot of pain and fear, Tom said, including fear of missing time with his wife and children.
Despite the hardships, Tom and his wife said, they are getting through it.
“There’s no gloom and doom,” Jen said. “We’ve had bad days — we’ve had lots of bad days — but you have to put a smile on your face.”
“Every day I wake up is a good day,” Tom said.
To contribute to “Yard Sales for Tom” or to make a donation to the O’Connors, contact Tom and Jen O’Connor by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on Joe Ruggery’s efforts, visit the Web site 24fortom.blogspot.com.