In May 2021, Sean O’Callaghan was living the dream. The 22-year-old student athlete was working a summer internship with the United States Golf Association before his senior year at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., where he was slated to be the captain of the school’s soccer team.
Then a life-changing discovery altered that course and took him on an unexpected health journey.
“I noticed something odd ‘down below’ — I thought it was nothing serious at first, just one side of my testicles looked bigger than the other,” he says. “But as my internship went on, I started to experience numbness and pain. By the end of June, early July, it was getting bigger, and I was in more pain. I knew I had to go get it checked out.”
Sean went to his primary care physician and heard the news no one wants to hear.
“They told me it was very likely testicular cancer,” he recalls. “It completely flipped my life around.”
While the news disrupted his summer, academic and athletic plans, Sean knew he had to keep a positive outlook — at first for his family, and then for himself.
“The first thought that came to my mind was my mom,” he says. “Her dad and sister had cancer and it was hard for her because they live in Ireland. For her to have to go through that with them — I felt like my cancer was going to hit her even harder than it hit me. Going into it with a positive attitude was me telling her, ‘I’m fine. I’m healthy and strong. I have a lot of good people looking after me.’ I figured if I had a positive attitude about it, they couldn’t help but be positive for me.”
“This young man discovered he had something growing on his testicle and didn’t know what to do,” Dr. Konijeti recalls. “He was told that based on how it appeared on his ultrasound, he probably had testicular cancer. When you say those words to someone young like him, it can be a tidal wave. But the moment he learned what it was, he had this attitude, ‘Tell me what I have to do, and I’ll do it.’”
Sean needed surgery to remove the cancerous testicle, followed by chemotherapy. Thanks to the comprehensive care and collaboration offered by Scripps Cancer Center, the whole process happened quickly.
“Sean saw his primary care physician on July 12. He had imaging done the next day, saw Dr. Konijeti a day later and had surgery within a week,” explains Munveer Bhangoo, MD, medical oncologist at Scripps Cancer Care and Scripps Clinic.
“It takes incredible coordination to diagnose a condition, get the appropriate workup and get the surgery done in a week. That’s the model at Scripps Cancer Center — to facilitate all these steps in diagnosis and treatment in a timely manner,” he continues.
“It takes incredible coordination to diagnose a condition, get the appropriate workup and get the surgery done in a week. That’s the model at Scripps Cancer Center — to facilitate all these steps in diagnosis and treatment in a timely manner."Munveer Bhangoo, MD, medical oncologist at Scripps Cancer Center and Scripps Clinic
“When you present with a testicular mass, you’re frightened, especially when you’re in your 20s. At Scripps Cancer Center, we are able to coordinate disease-specific expertise to ensure a timely and seamless care plan.”
Once Sean recovered from his surgery, he saw Dr. Bhangoo to determine his next course of treatment.
“I saw him a few weeks later to review the clinical data and assess his risk for recurrence. The first place this tumor can come back is in the intra-abdominal lymph nodes. While Sean’s imaging and pathology showed no evidence of cancer spread, there were high-risk features that suggested a benefit from chemotherapy.”
In August 2021, instead of returning to his university to finish his senior year and lead his soccer team to victory, Sean began chemotherapy.
“The first few weeks of treatment were OK,” he says. “But the last two weeks kicked my butt! I lost my strength, I lost 20 pounds and I lost my hair. But after the first cycle of chemo was done, I didn’t need any more treatment. Thankfully, I was in my healthiest form possible prior to my cancer diagnosis, so I was able to bounce back quickly.”
Sean, who played semiprofessional soccer before the pandemic and was a fitness trainer prior to chemo, credits his family, friends and fellow athletes and fitness team for encouraging him to get back to being his healthy, strong self.
While he was not able to return to school in person, he still graduated on time, thanks to virtual learning. And while he has officially hung up his soccer cleats, he’s picked up a golf club instead — both personally and professionally.
“No more soccer for me. I’m injury prone anyway,” he laughs. “I want to keep my body safe and keep it healthy for the long run. I’m back up to speed now. I’m working out again, I’m playing golf and even working in the golf industry.”
Most of all, he concludes, “I’m living life to the fullest.”
That’s not surprising to Dr. Konijeti.
“What’s really special about Sean is that there are a lot of young men who would feel paralyzed and not know what to do in this situation,” he says. “Sean looked at this as a small bump in the road. He recovered quite quickly and is now cancer-free. He’s absolutely thriving, and the cancer can be a distant memory.”
Now more than a year after his final chemotherapy session, Sean is back to living the dream — just a different version than before — and sharing his story in the hopes that other young men can also do all the things they want to do, despite facing an unexpected obstacle.
Unlike most cancers, testicular cancer tends to develop at a younger age. Cases are most common among men in their early 20s and early 40s.
“I want guys my age to know that this is something to be taken seriously. Instead of waiting, open up to someone,” he says. “At the time, I thought I should really say something to someone, but I didn’t know who. The important thing is, if you see or feel that something is wrong, go get it checked.”
Sean is thankful for the exceptional care he received from his whole team at Scripps.
“I really liked that Dr. Konijeti gave me a game plan, all the alternatives and the reassurance that, even though nothing is a guarantee, he’d done this many times and I was going to be OK,” he says.
“The chemo staff was also so positive — not just for me, but for my parents, who would spend five or six hours there with me. All the staff kept our spirits high, and they were there for me the whole time. I knew I was in very good hands with the entire Scripps cancer care team.”
This content appeared in San Diego Health, a publication in partnership between Scripps and San Diego Magazine that celebrates the healthy spirit of San Diego.