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Points of Departure: Coming Back from Cancer

Diver Bailey O’Brien (SAR’12) was diagnosed with end-stage melanoma. She now has a clean bill of health.

| From BU Today | By Alan Wong

Watch this video on YouTube
In the video above, diver Bailey O’Brien (SAR’12) talks about her battle with melanoma. Photo by Cydney Scott

On the way back to school after Thanksgiving, freshman diver Bailey O’Brien noticed a change in a mole on her right temple. The next weekend she went home to Putnam Valley, N.Y., and had the mole removed. It wasn’t until after finals that O’Brien’s parents told her the results of the biopsy.

“They said I should sit down,” recalls O’Brien (SAR’12). “My dad said, ‘I think you know why.’ I said, ‘No, what’s going on?’ Then he told me the results were positive for cancer.”

A subsequent examination revealed worse: O’Brien had stage III melanoma. The skin around her right temple was removed, along with 45 lymph nodes around her neck. Through it all, she continued to dive with the BU team, setting personal records year after year. Just before entering her senior year, and two years after her first bout with melanoma, O’Brien’s doctors found a tumor behind her jaw. Then they found another behind her earlobe. It was removed, but after two months of recovery and a month of radiation treatment, another tumor appeared under her chin.

“I came back to Boston ready to go to Hawaii with my teammates for a training trip,” she says. “I had developed a bump under my chin that I was concerned about. When my doctor biopsied it, I discovered that I had seven tumors in total.”

In January 2011, O’Brien was diagnosed with stage IV melanoma—“end-stage” as she describes it—with very little hope for survival.

“I just shut down,” she says. “I wasn’t sure what to do. I didn’t qualify for the clinical trials that were most promising, which my doctor wanted me to be in—so I began the quest for a cure that I wasn’t sure existed.”

Desperate for answers, O’Brien’s mother and a family friend discovered a hospital in Tijuana, Mexico, that had claimed a 60 percent five-year success rate with melanoma patients. With financial help from her family, friends, and teammates, O’Brien flew to Mexico and entered the three-week program. In addition to a regimen of natural and alternative vaccines, O’Brien started a modified form of the Gerson diet, which requires completely organic and unprocessed foods, fruits and vegetables, no added sodium, no red meat, and no refined sugars or grains.

By February, O’Brien thought the tumor in her chin appeared to be shrinking. She returned to the United States in March 2011 and continued with her treatment at home for the next month. “I knew that it was a possibility that while the tumor under my chin had gone away, the others could be the same size or even growing,” she says. In late March, two days before her 21st birthday, O’Brien went to her doctor for another PET scan. All of the tumors had disappeared.

“That,” she says, “was the most amazing moment of my life.”

O’Brien has just completed her first full year of classes. In February, she and her teammates from the Terrier men’s and women’s teams won the America East Swimming and Diving Championships. “For both of us to win in the same year was a really, really special moment,” she says. “I was really happy for both the men and the women’s team because we were the underdogs.”

With one semester remaining in the fall, O’Brien will not dive, but she will spend as much time as possible with her teammates and coaches. The nutritional sciences major is thinking about becoming a dietitian and helping people the way that she found help.

“I believe that the diet that I’m on, although it’s really strict, can heal a lot of people,” she says. “And I hope that by sharing my story and giving some nutritional advice, I lead some people down the right path of good health.”

Additional editing by Kara Siebein (COM’12).

Watch this video on YouTube In the video above, Bailey O’Brien (SAR’12) reads a letter that she wrote to her friends and family to celebrate her one-year anniversary of being declared free of cancer. Photo by Cydney Scott

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