Dan O’Connell has fought cancer twice and expects to battle it again. Believing every day of good health is a gift, he’s driven to run the 2018 Boston Marathon as a member of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Emergency Response Marathon Team.
The 50-year-old will raise money to support the hospital’s emergency care and disaster relief and preparedness efforts. As a lieutenant firefighter and paramedic for the Dennis (Massachusetts) Fire Department, Dan wants to help Mass General because he has an understanding of and appreciation for the hospital’s treatment of critically injured patients.
But Dan – who goes by the nickname “Flip” – also wants to run with the marathon team as a way of thanking the Mass General Hospital doctors, nurses and staffers who helped him complete separate treatments of a rare cancer, adenoid cystic carcinoma (ACC).
“They’re the most brilliant men and women you’ll ever meet,” Dan says.
Fighting a Rare Cancer
ACC is a unique form of cancer found in the secretory glands and is known for its unpredictability, with patients experiencing different complications. The disease grows slowly but, over time, it can progress rapidly.
Dan will never forget how he learned he had ACC. He suffered a nose bleed that lasted throughout the night of Halloween 2009. He thought he had the flu, and drove to another Boston-area hospital, where a biopsy revealed ACC in his brain. He chose to receive chemotherapy and proton radiation treatments at Mass General.
Dan received treatment with a group of children. Seeing many of those kids handle cancer with cheerfulness and determination inspired Dan. He says he occasionally thought he had little time to live, but that fear – combined with prayer and the inspiration of the children – carried him forward.
Everyone is Unbelievable
Treatments ended more than a year later, when Dan’s doctors reminded him that ACC doesn’t completely go into remission. Inevitably, in 2015, ACC was detected in Dan’s nasal septum, the wall of bone and cartilage that separates nasal passages. His septum was removed at Mass General, where he resumed proton radiation and chemotherapy.
“As a paramedic, I deal with health care and see all kinds of hospitals. Mass General is a whole different world.”
“The second time I thought differently than the first time. I thought, ‘This is really annoying,’ ” Dan recalls. “All I’m thinking then is that it’s taking time out of my life and I have to get going and do things.”
His view of hospital staff, however, remained unchanged the second time around. Lori Wirth, MD, who specializes in head and neck oncology at the Mass General Cancer Center “is one of my best friends,” Dan says. Annie Waifong Chan, MD, the director of the Cancer Center’s Head and Neck Radiation Oncology Research Program, is “one of the most brilliant people I’ve met,” he says.
“Everyone at Mass General, actually, is unbelievable,” Dan says. “As a paramedic, I deal with health care and see all kinds of hospitals. Mass General is a whole different world.”
Running for First Responders
Dan is determined to remain positive and appreciate his reprieve from ACC. He says eventually it will return, possibly surfacing in his lungs, but doctors aren’t entirely sure.
He was promoted to fire lieutenant in 2013, and is approaching his 25th anniversary on the job. He values the support of his fellow firefighters, who drove him to Mass General for appointments and made him meals when he was weakened by cancer treatments. “It’s the best job in the world,” he says. “It sounds clichéd and corny, but it is a brotherhood and they’ve helped me out.”
Dan has some experience with long-distance running. In 2011, he ran the Marine Corps Marathon in Virginia. After his second bout with ACC, Dan vowed that if he lived to 50, he would run the Boston Marathon and raise money for Mass General. On April 16, 2018, he intends to make good on that promise. He’s running for his “sister and brother first responders, and the nurses, doctors and technicians at Mass General.”
“I’m not out to win it,” he adds. “I want to give people hugs.”
John Hancock-Mass General Boston Marathon® Partnership
Mass General is proud to be an official Partner of John Hancock in the Marathon Non-Profit Program. The Non-Profit Program provides over 1,000 Boston Marathon® bibs to select non-profit organizations throughout the community, which provides organizations with a significant fundraising opportunity. Last year, John Hancock Non-Profit Runners raised over $10M for their causes. Learn more about our John Hancock-Mass General Boston Marathon partnership that continues to provide significant support for our three signature causes: Pediatric Cancer, Emergency Medicine, and Home Base.