Nothing Can Deter Two-time Cancer Survivor Kathleen O’Connor
By Joseph Santoliquito
The existence of a long-distance runner is one of solitude. It’s them, running. Only them. No one can run the race for them. No one can circumvent their pounding, throbbing feet, or the aches in their knees, or the lower back tightness, or the battle waged with doubt in their head.
And they persist in moving forward.
Like Kathleen O’Connor has.
She has the kind of raspy voice, and infectious, bellowing laugh that makes her easily recognizable to friends and family in crowded places. The 2018 Villanova graduate and former lacrosse player just completed her first half marathon in Washington, D.C. last weekend.
Each grueling step wasn’t about to defeat her, like the years’ worth of chemo she endured over 4.5 months in her first fight with Non-Hodgkin’s Anaplastic Large Cell Lymphoma five years ago.
O’Connor, 26, is part of the core of Team HEADstrong, a group of runners using their running as a way to give back to HEADstrong and the cancer community. This fall, she was joined by her friend and former Villanova lacrosse teammate, Alexis Leighton, two brothers Mike and Jack, both student-athletes themselves, and Robin Baxter, a former Division III coach and student-athlete, as the first members to participate in the Rock ‘N Roll Marathon series as a fundraiser for the Foundation.
Together, they’re raising greater awareness of cancer and the HEADstrong mission on the marathon circuit. They’re running for more than the solitude that comes with distance running.
“I think the biggest lesson that I learned when I had cancer is that you can’t control everything,” said O’Connor, who was initially introduced to HEADstrong in her freshman year at Villanova competing in the HEADstrong Fall Ball tournaments, and was the Nicholas E. Colleluori award recipient at the 2017 LimeLight Gala.
“No one could stop cancer from happening, but controlling the things that you can control is important,” she continued. “You can control having a positive outlook and attitude, how you treat people every day and I think I’m a stronger person because of my experience with cancer.”
Leighton, 24, a registered pediatric nurse at New York-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital in New York City, is actually the driving force that got O’Connor involved with running marathons and half-marathons. Last year, Leighton reached out to O’Connor to see if HEADstrong had any running bibs for the New York City marathon and got the ball rolling on this endeavor with Jeff Baxter, HEADstrong’s senior director of community engagement.
While O’Connor was fighting cancer as a student-athlete at Villanova, the priority was to keep things as normal as possible. O’Connor still found time to make everyone around her laugh and forget about their troubles, as she underwent treatment.
When O’Connor returned to the Villanova’s womens’ lacrosse team her senior year, Leighton recalls one poignant moment that involved running. The two of them paired up for one of Kathleen’s first spring tests.
“I remember telling Kathleen that she better not let me beat her,” Leighton recalled with a laugh. “Kathleen beat me to the line, and most days, you’re complaining about practice or complaining about running, and Kathleen had probably been dying to do that for months.
“That was a big moment for me, especially now when I go out and train for my races running for HEADstrong. It’s such a privilege to be able to do that, when Kathleen missed her (junior) season and she would have done anything to be out there every day.”
Leighton became familiar with the HEADstrong Foundation through Villanova lacrosse. After college, she wanted to continue doing something athletic, so she picked up running, though she wanted to do it for a reason.
“My first thought was to always go to HEADstrong and this is the first year I was able to run for them specifically,” she said. “They’ve been nothing but great, in terms of getting me gear and registration for races, and being a support system.”
Leighton was supposed to run a full marathon in Savannah, Georgia, on November 6th. Due to inclement weather, that was shortened to a half-marathon, the race that Robin Baxter was also running. The following week is when Kathleen and her brothers ran a half in DC on November 13th.
“It’s pretty awesome seeing what Alexis and Kathleen are doing,” said Robin, who ran her first half marathon in Savannah. “HEADstrong wanted to come up with this program so people not participating in team sports would have an avenue to set a goal for themselves, and still fundraise and be a part of the HEADstrong community.
“I wanted to raise awareness for HEADstrong, and we’re all affected by cancer, so running for those who can’t run was really important to me. You hear of people who have been through so much in life, like Kathleen, and crushing it.
“Being able to share the road with people like that, regardless of their story, it’s awesome.”
This weekend, Leighton will be running in the Rock ’n Roll marathon in Nashville, Tennessee.
“You are definitely by yourself when you’re running marathons, that and the music in my (Apple) AirPods that keep popping out,” Leighton said. “I saw Kathleen go through hell. It takes me three hours to run a marathon. There are two things that I say to myself before I run, ‘run for a reason,’ and the other thing I say to myself is ‘running is a privilege.’
“For how much your legs hurt or how long it takes, there are people out there who don’t have healthy and able bodies to run. It’s funny, because running was never my choice in college, so there is a little irony involved.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, O’Connor was running more and began wondering about running a half-marathon in August, after seeing one of Alexis’ social media posts about HEADstrong.
“I thought I could run a half-marathon, because I couldn’t do a full marathon, for sure, so I sent a text to my siblings and my brothers signed up with me for D.C.,” said Kathleen, the youngest of five who lives in Manhattan and possesses a communications degree and works for VideoAmp. “Once we were in, I told them, there was no backing out.
“I’ve been really close with HEADstrong and they’ve let me share my story and my insight on life. They’ve been a huge support for me and helped me cope with the trauma of cancer.”
O’Connor’s goal was to run her debut half-marathon in under two hours, which she achieved. Her one regret was not beating out her boyfriend, former Villanova lacrosse star Dan Seibel, who beat Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Seibel will be cancer free three years in March 2022.
“Dan beat me by six minutes, ugh, but we also wanted to finished in under two hours and we both did,” said Kathleen, who wore the same college number No. 27 as Nick Colleluori. “You are alone with your thoughts when you’re running, but I know a feeling that was even worse than running a half-marathon.
“The worst part of chemo was these really, really bad mouth sores that went down my entire tract to my stomach. I had six cycles of chemo, and in between each cycle, I would get some sort of infection. I learned everyone is out to help you, and my close circle got even closer.
“This run started with me and the anniversary of my stem cell, but it kind of ended with my dad, who unfortunately had his cancer relapse in September and he’s had some setbacks,” Kathleen said. “My father is the jolliest, most fun-loving guy, and I did this for him.”
To learn more about HEADstrong and those that they help, visit HEADstrong.org or on social media at @HEADstrongFND. To directly support Alexis, Kathleen, Robin, Mike and Jack’s fundraising efforts, click HERE. Interested in finding out how you can support or join Team HEADstrong? Email [email protected].