When Boston University diver Bailey O’Brien walks up to the board for her final dive at the America East Conference Championships on Feb. 23-26., it will be an emotional moment for the senior from Putnam Valley, N.Y.
Emotions will be high not only because it is her final collegiate meet, but because of the journey O’Brien has taken to reach this point in her diving career — and her life.
In the winter of 2007, O’Brien was adjusting to life as a student-athlete when she noticed a suspicious mole on her right temple. She had it checked out, and the doctors discovered cancer. They were not certain it was melanoma — the most dangerous type of skin cancer — but they treated it like such.
O’Brien underwent two surgeries in the next two months, removing all the skin around the tumor as well as 45 lymph nodes from her neck. A month of radiation treatment followed, and O’Brien was given instructions to undergo PET scans every six months to detect if the cancer returned.
For more then two years, there was no sign the cancer coming back. In the meantime, she returned to the pool for her sophomore and junior seasons, posting personal bests at the 2010 America East Conference Championships with a second place finish on the 1-meter (439.50) and a third place finish on the 3-meter (443.05).
O’Brien was gearing up for a superb senior season until doctors spotted a tumor behind the right side of her jaw in August 2010. It was positive for melanoma, and surgery was needed in September to remove it. But the surgeon missed the tumor by a millimeter. O’Brien went back for another surgery in October, and in the meantime, another tumor had grown behind her earlobe. The surgeon removed both tumors and the bottom half of her ear.
More radiation followed that December, and she wrapped up treatment a few days before leaving with the team for a training trip to Hawaii. But enjoying the trek to the Aloha State with her teammates was short-lived as she found yet another bump on her chin.
“After the Hawaii trip, I went into the locker room before I went to see my oncologist,” O’Brien said. “I said, ‘I feel like I keep getting knocked down.’ My teammates all gathered around me, and gave me hugs and said, ‘no matter what, we’ll be here for you.’”
The bump O’Brien found was also diagnosed as melanoma by her oncologist and an emergency CT scan that day showed seven more possible tumors. Because of the mutation of cancer O’Brien had, the clinical trial her doctor wanted her to try was ruled out. There was a chemotherapy pill that was a possibility, but it only had a 10 percent success rate.
“It was almost certain death,” O’Brien said. “There wasn’t a lot of hope.”
There were not a lot of options but O’Brien and her family started thinking outside the box to find alternative treatments. Her mother, Rebecca, scoured the Internet and made phone calls in a crusade to discover a treatment that could help her daughter.
First, O’Brien flew to Tulsa, Okla., to visit the Cancer Treatment Center of America for integrative options for killing the cancer, but it was a fruitless effort.
“They didn’t really have any miracle treatments, and then a huge snowstorm hit and we couldn’t see the doctor we wanted to see, so we came back,” O’Brien said.
“She just wasn’t getting better, so we were really scared for her,” BU diving coach Agnes Gerlach-Miller said.
Then O’Brien’s mother spoke to a researcher at a hospital in Mexico that offered some alternative treatments.
“She called him and he said that had a 60 percent five-year survival rate for melanoma patients,” O’Brien said.
Family, friends and teammates raised the funds to send O’Brien to Mexico for three weeks in hopes of finding some help.
“It was the biggest leap of faith in my life,” O’Brien said. “My mom and I flew to San Diego, and a Mexican driver picked us up in an old Chevy Suburban and brought us to the hospital. It was not a big sophisticated hospital you see in the U.S. I was terrified, but I had to keep going.”
The treatment included the use of the Coley’s vaccine–not approved in the U.S.–which induces an immune response on the body like fever, and helps the body find cancer cells and attack them. Doctors also made an autologous vaccine using O’Brien’s own blood–they took white blood cells, added an antigen and it injected back into her.
The third component of the treatment was changing her diet, which was a perfect fit for the nutritional sciences major. She is on a strict, organic diet that is low-sodium with no refined sugars or grains. She drinks two different kinds of vegetable juices several times a day, and eats very limited animal products.
“I want to research how nutrition can be healing and prevent disease,” O’Brien said. “It is a part of my treatment and part of what I want to do for my career, so it will be great if I can integrate them.”
So far, the regime seems to be working. At her latest oncologist appointment last March, he said there were no signs of active disease–practically a miracle after her prognosis.
After taking off last season to fight her battle with cancer, O’Brien started training in September, taking a slow and steady approach.
“It was hard for her to understand that she was weaker and couldn’t do as much, but with encouragement from all of us and positive thinking, she has really responded,” Gerlach-Miller said.
“She’s getting stronger and stronger every day. It’s amazing to see. It means so much to her to be diving and to be a part of the team.”
This semester, O’Brien resumed a regular practice schedule, and has improved every day.
“In the beginning of the year, I started out with very basic dives,” O’Brien said. “I’ve had a couple breakthroughs when my hurdles improved or my jump got stronger and higher. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve started adding more difficult dives. They are still not what I was competing with two years ago, but they are definitely harder than the ones I was doing earlier this year.”
“I always believed something good was going to happen to her,” Gerlach-Miller said. “I wasn’t expecting her to do her old, difficult dives, but in the last month she has been getting stronger and doing harder dives.”
O’Brien is incredibly thankful for her teammates and coaches’ support during her long road back to the pool.
“They kept me going and motivated me to try to get better and do it with a smile on my face,” O’Brien said.
The Terriers will host the America East Swimming & Diving Championships at the Boston University Aquatic Center on Feb. 23-26.
“I’m really hopeful at the America East Championships she can finish in the top eight,” Gerlach-Miller said. “That’s her goal and I really believe she can do it.”