'Try not to be afraid'

Courtesy photoLinda O’Connell, second from left, and her husband, John, third from left, pose for a photo with their children, from left, son Erik; daughter Beth Cossette; and son Chris and his partner, Victoria Briggs.

Linda O’Connell had gotten better about undergoing her routine screenings after her younger sister was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Then in April 2019, one of those routine screenings helped the 59-year-old O’Connell catch her own breast cancer.

“The lump was on my chest wall,” said the lawyer from Andover. “So you could never feel it. I only caught it because of the mammogram.”

Over the weeks that followed, O’Connell underwent two surgeries and had radiation every day for a month. Now, she’s on a daily maintenance pill for the next five years to keep the cancer at bay.

O’Connell wants people to know regular checkups and early detection truly make a difference.

“The routine screening is so important,” she said. “You can’t know until you almost lose your life how important.”

O’Connell continued practicing law through her treatments, including working on a large case that she had taken on right before her diagnosis.

She said figuring out who to initially tell about her situation was difficult because she still wanted to be viewed as a strong litigator. She ultimately told her client, but kept her diagnosis from the opposing lawyer. 

“Some people are sympathetic,” she said, “but some people take advantage of it.”

But once she started sharing her condition more freely with others, O’Connell said it was a relief. People responded with kindness, she said.

While cancer is a lonely diagnosis, letting people in helped, she said. Her friends, particularly those in her book club, “kept me in books and kept me sane,” she said. 

“Try not to be afraid,” O’Connell advised those facing a similar diagnosis. “There’s nothing else anyone can do for you. You are on your own. You have to take care of yourself and you can’t feel bad taking care of yourself.”

O’Connell said getting diagnosed with cancer has ultimately helped her to become healthier. She’s going to the gym more and eating better now. 

“Put yourself first for a while, and that’s hard to do,” especially as a mother and grandmother, said O’Connell, who has two grandchildren.

“It’s a journey and (about) learning to appreciate life. Every day, every single day is precious.”

O’Connell is under doctor’s orders to get a mammogram every six months for the rest of her life.

The first one post-cancer was “terrifying, but all clear.” 

“Breast cancer saved my life,” O’Connell said. “It was a silver lining and a wake-up call. If you want to see your grandkids have kids, you have to get healthier.”

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