Finding Meaning After Breast Cancer Treatment

Kelly O’Connor now helps others through their cancer journeys

Kelly O'Connor smiles at home outdoors holding her small dog after breast cancer treatment. SD Health Magazine

Kelly O’Connor now helps others through their cancer journeys

If you had asked Kelly O’Connor in 2022 about the big C in her life, you would have been referring to the C-suite. Then 45, O’Connor had a successful corporate career working with C-suite executives at a tech company.

She was healthy, active, thriving both professionally and personally, in a loving relationship with her partner, Jessica, and her two stepchildren. Then she received the diagnosis that no woman wants to hear. The other big C had entered her life, cancer. It came as a complete shock.

“I’m a healthy girl,” she says. “I always go to my medical appointments. I get my mammograms and my annual physicals. I regularly have dermatology screenings, and I go to the gynecologist. I work out and eat well. I have always been very thoughtful about my health.”

Breast self-exam raises concern

Despite having a mammogram four months prior, O’Connor discovered a lump during a routine self-exam. She went to see her primary care physician, who told her it didn’t feel like breast cancer, but sent her for an ultrasound to be on the safe side.

“Ultimately, it turned out to be stage 2 breast cancer,” she recalls. “That’s what led me to Scripps.”

A friend who had been through her own cancer journey spoke highly of the team at Scripps Cancer Center. From the first moment O’Connor walked into the multidisciplinary clinic, she knew she had chosen the right place and had the right team in her corner. 

“They were brilliant the way they did it. I met my surgical oncologist, medical oncologist and radiation oncologist on the same day,” she says. “When I got my diagnosis, I was absolutely shocked. This was nothing I expected. But when I met with the Scripps team, they did everything to make me comfortable. They gave me so much information and support that it helped me decide what I was going to do.”

Dream team, cancer care team

Dream team, cancer care team

“What I loved most about Drs. Rivera, Costantini and Koka was that they truly cared about what was the best treatment for me. I found that to be exceptional health care.” 

Kelly O’Connor

Because every cancer patient is unique, so is every patient’s path to wellness. That’s where Scripps’ stellar multidisciplinary team shines. Meeting with her team of physicians at the start meant O’Connor was able to fully understand her diagnosis and learn about her treatment options.

This “dream team,” as O’Connor calls them — Louis Rivera, MD, a surgical oncologist at Scripps Clinic; Carrie Costantini, MD, a medical oncologist at Scripps Clinic; and Anuradha Koka, MD, a radiation oncologist at Scripps Clinic — collaborated on a plan based on her individual needs and specific type of breast cancer. Manish Champaneria, MD, a plastic surgeon at Scripps Clinic, was also part of O’Connor’s team and performed breast reconstruction surgery following her cancer treatment.

This team approach is something each breast cancer patient experiences at Scripps, collectively sharing all options with the patient and, ultimately, supporting them on whatever path they choose.

“What I loved most about Drs. Rivera, Costantini and Koka was that they truly cared about what was the best treatment for me. I found that to be exceptional health care,” O’Connor says.

“My meetings were always informative, and there was no sugarcoating, which was perfect for me and Jessica, because then we knew exactly what we were dealing with,” she says.

“I never walked out scared. Instead, I walked out thinking, ‘I’m with the right team.’ I knew they would take care of me, and I felt like I had all these eyes on me. These people became my life because they were saving it.”

Multidisciplinary approach, best course

Dr. Rivera explains that the multidisciplinary approach offered at Scripps is beneficial for precisely this reason — it provides the patient with all the information they need to make the best decision.

“Most cancer types lend themselves to a multidisciplinary approach — at least the most common ones — because the care involves multiple therapies,” he says. “It’s important to tailor the treatment to the patient, especially with breast cancer, because there isn’t one approach that fits all.”

As the surgical oncologist on a breast cancer case, Dr. Rivera is often the first physician to be part of the treatment process. However, as treatments advance, this process continues to evolve. That’s another reason why he says the multidisciplinary approach is so beneficial.

“Historically, as a surgeon, my expertise has been a pretty early part of the patient’s evaluation. Traditionally, treatment has been surgery, plus or minus chemotherapy and radiation. But more and more, as we advance medical approaches to treat breast cancer, patients are benefiting from drug therapy upfront,” he explains.

“Having multiple providers involved and reviewing the patient’s breast cancer type from the start helps us identify which patients can break the mold and helps us determine if the classic paradigm doesn’t fit. This is important both for cancer-related outcomes and patient confidence. The patient’s awareness that everyone on the team agrees with the plan reassures them that there are no doubts about the diagnosis and the best course of treatment.”

Ultimately, after speaking to all three physicians, O’Connor and the team decided that the classic approach was the right course of action, and she underwent surgery with Dr. Rivera first. Though she had no family history of breast cancer, she felt a double mastectomy was the best choice for her.

“Cancer showed up, and I didn’t want it there,” she says. “They had to take one breast, and then I almost didn’t trust the other. So, I said, ‘Let’s just get rid of them both.’ It felt like the right thing to do.”

Stage 2 treatment path

After surgery, O’Connor was told that what was originally diagnosed as a 1-centimeter tumor was actually 3 centimeters. She also had two lymph nodes removed, one of which was cancerous. This upgraded her stage 1 breast cancer to stage 2 and altered the next step on her treatment path.

“When we stage breast cancer, we initially tell patients what their clinical stage is. It isn’t until after surgery that we fully understand the size of the tumor and whether the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes. Those two things impact whether or not chemotherapy should be considered,” Dr. Costantini explains.

“When Kelly first came in, she made it very clear that she was going to take care of this and get back to her life. We agreed and respected her desire to be as aggressive as possible,” she continues. 

“Her case was not clear cut — there was a lot of risk versus benefit analysis — but it was her outlook that she wanted to do everything she could right away because she never wanted to see cancer again. After surgery, when we found it in the lymph node, chemotherapy became a more beneficial option.”

Leaning on her support team

In true fighter fashion, O’Connor faced chemotherapy head on. Fourteen days after her first treatment, her hair started falling out. She leaned on her personal support team for strength.

“Right away, my awesome step kids wanted to shave my head, and they gave me a mullet. I had this feeling like, ‘This is so liberating. I had long blonde hair and now I have a buzz.’ But then I was bald. I didn’t like wearing a wig, so I just decided to go out bald and not be embarrassed. 

“People were so kind, but I caught myself in the mirror, and I was so skinny and bald. I was really uncomfortable because at that moment, I didn’t know who that person was anymore. I looked like I had cancer,” she recalls through tears.

“But then one day I looked in the mirror, and for the first time, I knew her again. In that moment of rediscovering who I was, it was an explosion of self-love. I had more joy than fear, and that set the tone for the rest of my new life. It’s counterintuitive to fight for your life and not live it because you’re paralyzed with fear.”

Finding new purpose

Finding new purpose

“As long as I’m there, no one will go through it alone. A lot of times, I’ll share my own experience and how I got through it. The minute they see me and see that I’m done, I’m volunteering at the place most people want to run away from, it really transforms their outlook.”

Kelly O’Connor

Once O’Connor finished her course of chemotherapy, she went back to work, eager to get back to the passion she had for her career. She intended to immerse herself in her work again, and then tackle radiation as the final step in her cancer journey. Then she was hit by another shocking revelation: Just as her life had changed with her cancer diagnosis, so had her passion.

“I went into work and realized that my passion for the job was completely gone. It was surprising — it was all I knew!” she says. “But a good leader knows when it’s time to step down, and I resigned. I had this inner voice that told me I needed to be in a place to help. That’s when I started volunteering.”

O’Connor left her job and started on a totally different journey — the journey to help others navigate the new world they unwillingly enter when they’re faced with a cancer diagnosis.

While working through daily radiation therapy sessions, she tapped into the initial emotions she experienced from the first day she heard the dreaded C word to determine how she could best be there for others battling the same emotions.

“When I was diagnosed, cancer broke my heart. I was not angry, I was heartbroken. I felt like I had done everything right, but my body failed me, and my breast tried to kill me,” she says. “That thought was so damning, and it kept me up so many nights. The word ‘cancer’ was in my name. Before, I was Kelly, and then I was ‘Kelly with Breast Cancer.’”

“When we’re young, we all believe to some degree that we’re going to live forever. We know we’re not, but a part of us still believes it. All of a sudden, that comfort was taken from me. There was a reality that something was going to happen. That absolutely scared me and led to some very dark nights. My sensitive heart was absolutely crushed.”

Tapping into those tough emotions gave Kelly a totally new perspective. 

“Cancer happened for me, not to me,” she says. “It made me a better person, a better woman and someone who genuinely loves life. Ultimately, what I learned is that my breast did not try to kill me, my body was telling me I needed medical care. That is an absolute gift. And I needed to find a way to pay it forward.”

That way started with becoming a volunteer at the Scripps Cancer Center. A few shifts a week, O’Connor helps out as needed, whether that’s cleaning up chemotherapy stations, transporting blood for infusions or sitting by a patient’s side offering comfort and inspiration. In fact, she’s often called upon by the infusion nurses to support patients who are having a particularly hard time that day.

“As long as I’m there, no one will go through it alone,” she says. “A lot of times, I’ll share my own experience and how I got through it. The minute they see me and see that I’m done, I’m volunteering at the place most people want to run away from, it really transforms their outlook. It’s amazing the impact I have seen from this experience.”

That impact inspired her to take her new passion for paying it forward another giant step further.

Helping others is healing

O’Connor started a new company to share the lessons she learned to help cancer patients, their families and their employers to better understand what to expect during and after treatment and provide both a soft landing from treatment and a positive launch to their new life. 

This spirit of giving back does not surprise her radiation oncologist Dr. Koka one bit.

“Kelly has one of the most incredible attitudes of any patient I’ve met. Not only getting through her cancer, but what she’s doing now as a volunteer at Scripps Cancer Center,” she says.

“We hear often that people want to pay something forward, but they can’t always do that. They can’t just take a 180-degree turn and do what they are passionate about. It’s remarkable to see the commitment Kelly has to doing just that.

“She left a very prestigious job, and now she’s putting all that drive and energy into her new passion to help others with breast cancer.

“I have had a few patients say that cancer was a gift, but Kelly truly means it. I have tremendous respect for her and what she’s doing.”

O’Connor’s cancer journey changed the way she sees her life. “As a fellow cancer patient, I can do what the physicians can’t. They do the most incredible job at Scripps — from the receptionists to the nurses to the doctors.

They became my friends, they hugged me, Dr. Koka put her hand on my shoulder and said, ‘You’re going to beat this; I believe it and you’re going to believe it,’” she says.

“They lead the charge like a general leads a team into battle. But they don’t necessarily understand the emotions we feel as patients. It can be hard or confusing if we let it be, but it can also be simple if we have the right tools. By helping others, I have found a way to heal my broken heart.”

San Diego Health Magazine cover, spring 2024

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.

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