TROY — The annual Bill and Ruth McGraw Cancer Awareness Symposium returned Tuesday evening, featuring a professional cyclist, a winner of the CBS television show “The Amazing Race,” and a survivor of testicular cancer.
“His story is one of survival and hope,” Upper Valley Medical Center board member Bill McGraw III said about speaker Connor O’Leary.
“I’m really humbled to be here,” O’Leary said.
The symposium was held at the The Crystal Room in Troy and was sponsored by the UVMC Cancer Care Center, the UVMC Foundation, and the McGraw Family Fund of the Troy Foundation.
O’Leary had been a professional cyclist since he was 14 years old until a cancer diagnosis interrupted his career.
“Riding my bike would become my passion,” O’Leary said. He showed the audience a home video as he learned to ride his first bike, which was a pink hand-down from one of his four sisters. O’Leary said that cycling would play a “huge role” in overcoming his cancer.
“As I progressed in the sport, my days were filled with hours and hours of training,” O’Leary said. “I ate, slept and breathed that sport.” When it came to racing with the USA National Team, O’Leary said, “It was this dream come true.”
At one point during his early racing career, though, his performance began to decline. It was around his 19th birthday when he went back to the United States after racing in Europe and was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
“The last thing I expected to hear was ‘you have cancer,’” O’Leary said. “For me, it felt like time stopped.”
O’Leary immediately underwent surgery, and his days transitioned from hours of cycling to seven hours of chemotherapy for five days a week.
“I went from this bulletproof, 19-year-old kid … to meeting with doctors,” O’Leary said. “The days seemed never-ending.”
In addition to undergoing chemotherapy, O’Leary also suffered a pulmonary embolism, which occurs when a blood clot blocks one or more arteries in the lungs. He spent 10 days in intensive care.
“Hands down, it was the scariest 10 days of my life,” O’Leary said.
After O’Leary was released from intensive care and his chemotherapy was finished, O’Leary was confronted with the damage both illnesses had done to his body. His doctor told him that he would always be able to ride his bicycle, but it was unknown if he would ever return to the top of the sport and be a professional cyclist again. The pulmonary embolism had left extensive scar tissue in O’Leary’s lungs.
“In that moment, I was crushed,” O’Leary said. “I remember in that moment realizing that I wasn’t going to get back to top of the sport if I didn’t try … I got right down to business.”
O’Leary said that he knew he was going to have to start small, so he went to the community pool one Wednesday afternoon to wade around in its resistance track.
“I quickly realized I was getting lapped by an 80-year-old man,” O’Leary said, laughing as he talked about comparing who he was in that moment to the elite-level athlete he had once been. O’Leary did not let that moment, or his future path to go from surviving cancer to thriving once again, keep him down for long.
“I didn’t want to be labeled simply as a survivor,” O’Leary said. “I really wanted to be a thriver.”
O’Leary explained how he returned to cycling and in the beginning, whenever he got his heart rate up, there would be an intense burning sensation in his lungs that would sometimes leave him coughing up blood. However, he overcame those physical obstacles.
“Hard work, determination, and really a new outlook on life, I got back to the top of my sport,” O’Leary said. “Now I wanted to take advantage of every opportunity.”
O’Leary said this new perspective led to his decision to apply to be on the CBS television show “The Amazing Race.”
“It had been something that had been on my bucket list for quite some time,” O’Leary said.
He explained that one Sunday morning, he told his father that that they were applying to be on “The Amazing Race,” then they filled the entry video later that day.
“We had nothing scripted. We didn’t even clean up the garage,” O’Leary said before showing the audience his entry video with his father. In the video, his father, Dave O’Leary, explained that he had also survived cancer.
O’Leary and his father heard back from the production team around three weeks after submitting the video, and they underwent mock testing for the show in Los Angeles. It was three months before they heard back from CBS again, telling them that they were going to be on “The Amazing Race” and that they were leaving in a month.
O’Leary and his father went on to be featured on two seasons of “The Amazing Race.” They had to eliminate themselves from the race the first season after O’Leary’s father ruptured his Achilles tendon and tore part of his calf muscle. O’Leary said that the went through four legs of the race with his father wearing a boot and using a crutch before the production team heard from a doctor in the United States that Dave O’Leary needed to undergo surgery right away or he would suffer permanent damage.
The production team later invited O’Leary and his father back to “The Amazing Race” for their all-star season. O’Leary said that the fact they each had survived cancer contributed to them being successful on that season of the show.
“Cancer really does push you to the limit, both mentally and physically,” O’Leary said.
They were eventually able to win that season of the show, along with its $1 million prize. O’Leary’s father was the oldest winner of the show, and they were the first parent-child team to win “The Amazing Race.”
“We ended up winning, and honestly I think my dad’s going to have that engraved on his tombstone,” O’Leary said. “‘The Amazing Race’ is all about encountering challenges. Cancer and life … are very much the same.”
O’Leary said that from surviving cancer and from life he gained a mental fortitude.
“It taught me to never give up, to stay positive, and to keep going even it gets really, really hard,” O’Leary said. He ended with a phrase from the show, saying, “The world is waiting for you, travel safe, have fun, go.”