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Petaluma teen fighting cancer

Petaluma High School junior Ellie O'Neill, center, shares a light moment with baskeball coaches Janelle Lomardi, left, and Doug Johnson.

Published: Friday, January 18, 2013 at 12:41 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 18, 2013 at 12:41 p.m.

The last time 17-year-old Ellie O'Neill was in a hospital was to be with her younger brother, who was undergoing treatment for an injury suffered when the Little League pitcher was hit in the head by a line drive. This week, Ellie is back in a hospital, only this time, it's to be treated herself.

O'Neill, a junior at Petaluma High School, underwent an operation earlier this week to remove a malignant tumor from her arm, along with a lymph node that doctors also believe is cancerous.

Her father, Dennis O'Neill said things went well with the operation, but now the family must wait for a pathology report to see if the cancer has spread.

The discovery of the teen's melanoma, rare in a person so young, comes following the severe head injury her brother, Brendan O'Neill, sustained last summer when a line drive in a Little League baseball game forced him to have head surgery. Brendan has recovered sufficiently to resume his athletic career, now in its basketball stage.

“We're staying positive,” said Dennis O'Neill, a paramedic who volunteers at Petaluma High School football games. “This affects all of us.”

In addition to support from her family, which includes brother, Brendan; brother, Will, a freshman at Petaluma High; sister, Annie; father, Dennis; and mother, Leslie, O'Neill has received strong support from her teammates on the Petaluma basketball team.

“They have been amazing,” the player said of her teammates. “I couldn't go through this without them.”

Petaluma Coach Doug Johnson said it is a two-way street — that O'Neill's positive attitude has allowed the other players to deal with their own emotions.

“It's been very emotional,” the coach said. “The kids have handled it very well because of Ellie. “She has been supportive of the other players. She has really helped the girls. She is a very mature 11th grader.

“I've been through some tough situations during my years of coaching, but this is one of the toughest.

“Ellie is incredible.”

O'Neill's concern for others was exemplified when she visited the young player who hit the ball that struck her brother and consoled him with a hug and kind words, assuring him that he was in no way to blame for an incident everyone considered an unfortunate accident.

Now, it is her family that needs consoling. Although the family's strong faith allows them to remain positive, the O'Neils can't help but wonder, “why?”

Not only was Brendan's unusual accident a shock, but Ellie's illness came seemingly out of nowhere. “Doctors say it is rare to see this in someone so young, and there is no history of this kind of thing on either side of the family,” Dennis O'Neill said.

Ellie said the irony of her situation is that she feels well. “I don't feel sick at all,” she said. Indeed, she felt well enough to play basketball for the Petaluma High School varsity less than a week before her scheduled operation. A gifted singer, she has continued to perform the Star Spangled Banner prior to both boys and girls games at her school.

O'Neill said she discovered what she thought was a freckle on her arm, but it continued to be red and appeared to be growing. “It didn't look very pretty, so I decided to have it removed,” she recalled. “It was then that the doctors discovered the growth was malignant. It was a good thing that we caught it early.”

As the surgery approached, O'Neill couldn't help but be scared, yet, like her family, she has tried to remain positive.

“I'm optimistic,” she said. “I just want it to be over with so I can play summer-league basketball.

“It is kind of a bummer, but everything happens for a reason.”

While she is philosophical about her problem, and remains genuinely optimistic, O'Neill acknowledges it isn't always easy.

“It has been an emotional roller coaster,” she said. “It is definitely a shock. Sometimes your mind plays games on you.”

She said she has found comfort and inspiration from the way Brendan was able to recover from his severe injury and also from a friend of her younger sister, Annie, who has a similar problem. “The way he has handled it and is recovering makes me feel a lot better about it,” she said.

(Contact John Jackson at johnie.jackson@ar guscourier.com)

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