A better tomorrow

By RUTH MOON For The Sun

While most of Anna O’Connor’s peers are graduating from college and looking for jobs, the 23-year-old is at home in Wheaton, sleeping 15 hours a day and taking an intense round of chemotherapy treatment.

O’Connor was diagnosed at age 17 with neuroblastoma — a rare form of cancer that targets the nervous system and almost always afflicts very young children — when she went to the doctor for a check-up.

“It was shocking, of course, but at that time I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just do my year of intense chemotherapy, and I’ll be done, and that’ll be that.’ Obviously it wasn’t like that,” she said.

Her current treatment means she is in and out of the hospital and sleeps a large part of the day.

“There’s no way I can do a 40-hour-a-week job,” O’Connor said. “Even part-time would be hard — I have bad days. Last week, I was in the ER. It’s hard, but I’m just done comparing myself to anyone else my age. I can’t do that.”

She has tried every form of treatment offered for the disease and is now on a course of experimental chemotherapy. She has undergone 50 rounds of radiation. In the midst of treatment, she managed to graduate from Wheaton North High School and graduated from Wheaton College in 2007 with a degree in psychology.

Fewer than 1 in 20 cases of neuroblastoma occurs in patients older than 10, said Dr. Susan Cohn, who heads pediatric cancer research at the University of Chicago and finds the rarity of the cancer makes it difficult to study.

O’Connor has flown across country for treatments, none of which has been successful. Her cancer has never been in remission. Now she is taking three different oral doses of chemotherapy, one of which costs $40,000 per month. O’Connor’s father, Robert, estimates that the family has spent $75,000 to $100,000 on her treatment, and the cost without insurance would be in the millions.

O’Connor knows there are others who can’t afford to treat the disease — so she has formed Anna’s Hope, an organization that works to raise money for research and awareness.

O’Connor paints 1 1/2-inch ceramic squares with a cheerful daisy design, fires them and adds necklace or key chain closures, then sends them to anyone who donates $25 or more through her Web site, http://www.annabanana.org. So far, she’s raised $7,000, plus more than $650,000 from speaking engagements.

“I feel like God’s given me this gift to be able to speak, because everyone else who has it is 2 years old. It’s these voiceless children who are suffering, and I’m one of the only ones who can even speak on behalf of neuroblastoma,” she said. “I’m not going to wait to help raise money, I’m going to do something now and push to raise money now, because children are dying now — I’m dying now.”

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