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Health

Plainfield woman is a 'walking billboard' for one particular form of cancer

Lori and Mike O'Connor of Plainfield pose with their grandchild Gavin O'Connor. Following Mike's prostate cancer diagnosis, Lori became a "walking billboard" for the importance of screening.
Lori and Mike O'Connor of Plainfield pose with their grandchild Gavin O'Connor. Following Mike's prostate cancer diagnosis, Lori became a "walking billboard" for the importance of screening.

PLAINFIELD  – “She’s kind of like a walking billboard.”

That’s how Eve Swire, spokesperson for the 13th annual SEA Blue Chicago Prostate Cancer Walk & Run on Sunday in Chicago, described Lori O’Connor of Plainfield and her commitment to raising awareness of prostate cancer screening.

According to the American Cancer Society, screening can include a prostate-specific antigen blood test (elevations may signal cancer or other conditions) and a digital rectal exam, which checks for bumps or hard areas on the prostate.

“When I work out at the gym, I take a little bag [promoting screening] and hang it on the treadmill,” O’Connor said. “I want all the men to see it, even if they glance up and not say anything. I just want to plant that seed.”

As the volunteer coordinator for Sunday’s event, O’Connor has assumed multiple tasks, Swire said in an email.

O’Connor has connected with teams via telephone to provide updated information about fundraising and event procedures, and she places these calls in the evening after working all day, calls that can be extremely emotional and sensitive depending where people are in their cancer journey, Swire wrote.

Furthermore, O’Connor has also talked to local businesses in person and distributed dozens of brochures about the event, which will also offer a free testing site. She has stuffed packets of materials and is creating a plan on grass-roots marketing, Swire said.

On event day, O’Connor will oversee the volunteers, which could be up to 100 people, Swire said. O’Connor’s goal is to become an official spokesperson for Us TOO, an international group founded in 1990 by five Chicago men with prostate cancer.

Sunday’s event benefits Us TOO International Prostate Cancer Education and Support Network.

“She really wants to raise awareness with the hopes of helping someone else,” Swire said in an email.

O’Connor downplays her efforts since she’s “only six months into this.” Her husband, Mike O’Connor, was only 48 when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in December 2016.

Lori said Mike had his prostate removed in February 2017, two weeks after he turned 49. Mike had no signs or symptoms of prostate cancer and was younger than the American Cancer Society recommendations for beginning screening (age 50) based on average risk. Men at higher risk should be first screened between the ages of 40 to 45, the ACS website said.

But at Mike’s annual physical, Lori, recalling a radio commercial about the importance of screening, impulsively asked the doctor to check Mike’s PSA. The doctor did and Mike’s level was elevated.

Lori said Mike calmly took the news, but her mind whirled. She feverishly researched online all the different reasons for the elevation and couldn’t bring herself to say the word “cancer.”

Fortunately, when Mike’s first biopsy was benign, Lori sought a second opinion. That led to a repeat biopsy and a cancer diagnosis. In fact, 35 percent of Mike’s prostate had cancer, Lori said.

“When you’re blindsided with a cancer diagnosis – I can’t even explain to you what that feels like,” Lori said. “I went through all the emotions.”

Lori found support through online forums and offers a sensitive listening ear when talking about cancer to others experiencing it. As of now, Mike’s prognosis, Lori said, is excellent.

Since early detection can also mean early remission (Mike didn’t need radiation and chemotherapy, only surgery). Lori wants similar outcomes for other men.

She wants open awareness for prostate screening on a level with breast cancer screening.

But Lori also knows without subtle reminders of the need for screening (hence, the bag promoting screening on her treadmill handle), men probably won’t think about it, much less discuss it with their doctors or among themselves.

“Men are men,” Lori said. “They don’t bring these things up. ... They don’t know if their fathers had it, which increases their risk, because they don’t talk about it.”

In addition to the walk and run, SEA Blue will include a “Talk to the Docs” education tent, free PSA (prostate-specific antigen) testing, an event T-shirt, free lunch and snacks, one complimentary beer (must be 21 with valid ID), a performance by the Jesse White Tumblers, live music and a “family fun zone” for kids, according to a news release from Us TOO.

The emcee this year, once again, will be prostate cancer survivor and WGN TV news anchor Steve Sanders, with a special guest appearance by Dave Fogel of K-Hits 104.3 FM, the release also said.

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IF YOU GO

WHAT: 13th Annual SEA Blue Chicago Prostate Cancer Walk & Run

WHEN: 8 a.m. to noon Sept. 10

WHERE: Lincoln Park at LaSalle and Stockton on Chicago’s lakefront

COST: $45 for 5K adult runner, $40 for adult walker, $30 for 5K child runner, $25 for child walker, and free for children five and under. Prior to the event, participants can earn prizes by raising funds through donations from family and friends. Those who are unable to participate in person, but still want to help fund-raise, can register at no charge as a “virtual mover.”

ETC.: Money raised will help fund the work of Us TOO International (www.ustoo.org), a nonprofit that provides educational resources and support services to the prostate cancer community at no charge. 

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