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Monday, August 17, 2015

Truly One Of A Kind (Profile in Courage)

"It is kind of life-changing at twelve to find your parents [dead] in your home and a stranger. A lot definitely changed that day."
"I am very lucky. She is my sister [older sister] but she is kind of my mom too."
"It just seemed easier to process that something very bad had happened, it shouldn't have happened but it did, so now we have to figure out what our next plan is. I think we all have that resilience in figuring things out and doing the best we can with what we are given, You just kind of carry on. I think you can let anything make you fall apart. But it is kind of how you choose to pick everything up and put the pieces back together that matters."
"I think events in life kind of prepare you for things."
"For my kids' sake, I never want to stop treatment. I don't want to ever have to look at them and tell them 'Mommy had to give up because we couldn't afford to pay for the medication. Because of all the medications I received I was really concerned about his [newborn baby] health and well-being. He is nothing but a bag of giggles."
Jillian O'Connor, 32, Ottawa
Jillian O'Connor and son Declan in front of painting Legacy in lobby of the critical care wing of The Ottawa Hospital General Campus. Adam Feibel / Ottawa Citizen

To say that this young woman views life through the lens of optimism and philosophical acceptance would be to state the obvious, yet at the same time, understating her strength of character. Many people would have gone through life in a fug of resentment that fate had been so cruel as to put her and her older sisters through the trauma of seeing their parents separate, their father committing a murder-suicide in shooting their mother and their mother's friend to death before taking his own life.

While Jillian was twelve when she lost her parents, both of whom she attributes fond memories to, her older sister was twenty-one, and took on the care of her younger sisters for a year until they all returned to Perth where they had lived with their parents, and where their familial roots were, for a return to what was familiar, and to complete school there. The three sisters, Julie, Jody and Jillian coped with their loss and helped one another to gain an inner strength that eludes most people.

The three sisters went on to complete their education. And Jillian trained as a nurse. She and her sisters married, and began to raise their families. With her husband David, Jillian moved to a rural area close enough so her husband could commute to Perth where he worked, and she could travel to the Queensway-Carleton Hospital where she worked. And two children swiftly arrived to enlarge the family; a little girl now three, and her brother, two.

Jillian needed that inner strength when while pregnant with her third child while the first two were still infants, she was diagnosed with incurable breast cancer. She and her husband decided to continue the pregnancy. And with the guidance of an Ottawa oncologist she gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Her doctor had remarked on the rarity of a pregnant mother to have late-stage cancer. But he was confident he could bring the pregnancy to a successful conclusion. Jillian's positive attitude was a priceless bonus.
Julie Oliver / Ottawa Citizen
Julie Oliver / Ottawa Citizen     Jillian O'Connor - who has terminal cancer, but decided to continue her pregnancy before aggressively treating it - holds her newborn son, Declan, with Dr. Mark Clemons, her oncologist and researcher at the Ottawa Hospital. Born at seven pounds six ounces on Feb.1, 2015, the baby is healthy and proof of the soundness of her decision, says the nurse and mother of three.

She had a mastectomy, and an ultrasound revealed that the cancer had spread to her liver. Additional tests would have compromised her pregnancy so they weren't conducted during the pregnancy. Baby Declan was born in February and then the tests were undertaken to fully comprehend the cancer's inroads into her body. They discovered that cancer had spread to organs and bones, and she was given fewer than two years' survival. With that kind of diagnosis, palliative care is the only option to aim for quality of life.

Jillian doesn't feel, under her very special circumstances, that her quality of life is lacking very much. "This is what we do all day, hang out and play with toys", she says laughingly explaining how busy she is with her children. So busy that she forgets the cancer that is making short work of her life. But her life, busy as it is for a young mother of three very young children, is complicated by the fact that chemotherapy is a constant in her life.

The hope is that chemotherapy will help ensure the cancer doesn't advance too quickly. CT scans monitor the state of that optimism. And although the cancer was shown not to have affected any organs other than those already impacted, it had spread within her bones. And so she goes to Ottawa on Mondays for blood tests, and on Tuesday for chemotherapy. Her sisters help where and when they can.

And this extraordinary women admits to feeling somewhat tired some days, but overall, fine, that making the most of life is what is important to her. She is looking forward to her firstborn's birthday, planning to make it a memorable occasion for the little girl. There are certain hardships; no longer able to work herself, her husband has taken extra shifts at work to make up for income lost, working twelve hours at a stretch some days.

His wife has no sick benefits. Her former colleagues have raised over $110,000 to help the family []. 

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