Cancer fight inspires county Courage Award
By Danielle Camilli Staff writer, Burlington County Times | Posted: Thursday, April 18, 2013 12:00 am
MOUNT HOLLY — When Loretta O’Donnell was diagnosed with advanced cancer three years ago, she felt anything but courageous.
The Mount Laurel wife and mother felt like “a deer in the headlights,” overwhelmed, sad and scared to learn what she thought was a stomach bug was, in fact, Stage 4 metastatic colon cancer and that she “would soon be gone.”
But the former journalist and county public information officer had all the skills that served her well for her whole career. She could research, ask lots of questions and be persistent, O’Donnell said Wednesday night as the guest of honor at a special county Board of Freeholders meeting and reception in her honor at the Burlington County Culinary Arts Center at High and Mill streets.
She could educate herself and fight back. And yes, the now 59-year-old would learn as she fought the battle of her life as she helped others along the way, she did have courage.
“Loretta is a survivor of the highest order,” said Freeholder Director Joe Donnelly on Wednesday. “She has not only faced incredible odds and battled back with great courage, she has evolved as a veritable one-woman support group for others in her situation.”
For that, the board recognized her with a new award that will be given out annually in her honor to be called the Loretta O’Donnell Courage Award. She was the first recipient with the board making it official with a bipartisan, unanimous vote.
O’Donnell, who is between chemotherapy treatments with another round to start next week, said she was honored and surprised by the award. Her husband, Bill, son, Mike, and daughter, Laura, helped her celebrate Wednesday.
“It means so much to me and it came at a good time when I had received bad news that the chemo I was on wasn’t working anymore. It was a big morale booster,” she said Wednesday night in a room filled with about 60 friends, family members and colleagues from her years working for the county and the state.
As O’Donnell fought her devastating diagnosis, including surgery and chemo treatments, she found the strength to attend educational workshops, join a meditation support group and engage in LiveStrong exercise classes.
She participated in the Colon Cancer Alliance’s national conference and run in Philadelphia and gave of her time, volunteer writing for the American Pain Association newsletter and for Cooper University Hospital’s cancer newsletters.
Even now, she is editing stories of women cancer survivors for a book and earlier this year walked the runway at New York Fashion Week with other cancer patients and survivors.
“I’m giving it my best shot,” she told the room of supporters, saying she would share her honor with other brave patients, survivors and those who have died from cancer that she has met on her own journey. “My motto is ‘No surrender, No retreat.’”
O’Donnell said she now focuses more on relationships and living, not what she can accomplish or limitations. She embraces new experiences that help her live in the present and cherishes all the memories those close to her have shared with her since she became sick.
“Now, I say what the hell, why not?” she said of her new sense of freedom and fearlessness. “… The caterpillar who thought her life was over suddenly turned into a butterfly.”
Renee Borstad, the longtime county director of consumer affairs, called O’Donnell a hero.
“She’s phenomenal and we miss her here at work, but she is such an inspiration, especially to women,” Borstad said.
Donnelly said O’Donnell can count on the county and all the friends she has made over the years here to continue to be with her as she fights the tough odds against her.
“You have turned that battle into a crusade for yourself and others,” he said. “We all stand firmly behind you and with you and you have our best wishes and prayers.”