A Patient’s Perspective: Dan McCarthy’s Journey to New Beginnings

Dan McCarthy and Cindy O'ConnellSeven years ago, a routine physical for Dan McCarthy yielded an unexpected and unwelcome result: an elevated PSA and a recommendation for a biopsy. Dan and his wife Cindy O’Connell (shown right) couldn’t have been more shocked when the results were positive for prostate cancer.

“There is no family history of cancer, and while I’ve had other health problems, I did not think the ‘C word’ would be part of my life,” Dan recalled.

As the couple mulled over a recommended radical prostatectomy, Cindy, who was familiar with the reputation of the UF Health Proton Therapy (UFHPTI), began speaking with doctors there as she and Dan also reviewed information about proton therapy, including a book written by a proton patient about his experience.

“Once we got through the initial anxiety created by the diagnosis, we tried to understand what the treatment involved, what the chances of success were, the possible side-effects of radiation, and how this might impact our life.” They ultimately chose proton therapy at UFHPTI.

Dan’s prostate cancer had been diagnosed as moderate-to-high risk, so treatment was scheduled as soon as possible in Jacksonville, FL. He received a total of 39 proton therapy sessions over the course of three months and was fortunately able to stay with family members living in the area during that time. “I thought of it as a ‘raday vacay,’” he joked.

Of course, no form of cancer treatment remotely resembles a vacation. “As a young adult I attended the US Naval Academy, and went through a form of crucible training referred to as ‘plebe year’,” said Dan. “In many ways, this was very similar.  Proton therapy was necessary to assure the best outcome possible, but getting there required grit and determination.”

Dan and Cindy emphasize the importance of the interactions between family, physicians, friends, and faith in the fight against cancer. “It takes a team.  While attitude and perseverance are always critical components when facing significant challenges in life, the most critical element in our prostate cancer experience was the outstanding care provided by UFHPTI.  We had great confidence in Dr. Nancy Mendenhall.  Her expertise is widely recognized, but it wasn’t just her reputation that instilled such trust and confidence.  It was listening to her clear explanation of my diagnosis, how she would treat my cancer, what the success rates were, and what I would experience – mentally, physically and emotionally – during treatment.  We trusted her and the UFHPTI team implicitly, and this confidence, coupled with our personal faith and the love of family, fully equipped us for what lay ahead.”

During one visit to UFHPTI, they were also very much inspired by a 10-year-old patient from Scotland who was being treated for brain cancer. “When his name was called he hugged each member of his family before walking with his caregiver through the doors leading to the radiation gurney,” Dan remembered. “Then I saw him turn and run back and my heart sank – I assumed he just couldn’t face another treatment.  But he had just come back for his favorite teddy bear. So rather than feeling sorry for myself, with each visit I instead gained strength and optimism from fellow cancer patients like him.”

Dan and Cindy are dedicated stakeholders in COMPPARE because they believe that the study’s results will ultimately advance prostate cancer treatment and inform patients about what options are best for them. “Continued participation in COMPPARE may be one of the few things we can do in life that will help save the lives of people we don’t even know.”

Now cancer free, Dan and Cindy, with three married children and eight grandchildren, live a very active life full of family adventures. “My prostate cancer has not limited us in any way.  In fact, prostate cancer has stirred us to go, see, do as much as possible while our health allowed us to explore. Life after prostate cancer can actually be even better, because the treatment options can prevent the spread of the disease.  Winston Churchill once said that ‘nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.’  In my case, I live with that exhilaration every day!”

Dan advises other prostate cancer patients to do the same. “The bell-ringing ceremony upon the completion of treatment is best viewed as a new beginning: Seize the day following your fight with cancer.  Each one is a blessing, a new chance to value your spouse, build your families, and treasure others who have shared the journey. And be thankful that doctors and staff have dedicated their professional careers to helping us in life-threatening circumstances.”