From princess in peril to fairy godmother, former Make-A-Wish kid Sarah O’Neill is hoping to make a difference in pediatric medicine, all while granting a few wishes along the way.
Diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma (RMS) at 10 years old, O’Neill soon spent more time in the hospital than on the playground, enduring 47 chemotherapy treatments and 25 rounds of radiation over the course of just one year.
A soft tissue cancer made up of cells that normally develop into skeletal muscles, RMS is relatively rare and most commonly seen in children aged one to five years old, and much less so for kids O’Neill’s age.
Needless to say, it wasn’t an easy discovery.
“When my mom first noticed a droop in my left eye, we didn’t think much of it,” O’Neill explained. “But then it didn’t go away, so she took me to our doctor who told us it was ptosis, this condition that pre-adolescents get, and just kind of dismissed us like it was nothing.”
But mom wasn’t convinced.
After a trip to an optometrist found a growth under O’Neill’s left eyelid, it was just a matter of time before her family got the news.
“It took three pathology labs to diagnose, because it’s such a rare cancer,” she said. “I started chemo a couple weeks later, and they put a port into my chest.”
It was during one of those sessions that the family was approached by Make-A-Wish. An organization known for helping kids with life-threatening illnesses, O’Neill and her parents couldn’t understand why they were being offered such a gift.
“We said — thank you, but this isn’t for us,” she remembered. “We just didn’t feel we deserved it, but they assured us that we qualified.”
Originally the avid Toronto Maple Leafs fan wanted a chance to skate with Tie Domi — a fighter she could relate to.
But after treatment ended, and a little soul-searching, O’Neill knew the wish had to be about more than just her.
“At that point I realized it was a trip that we really needed and wanted — something for my whole family,” she said. “I knew my diagnosis was something that had rocked my whole family from the beginning. This would be a chance to be together, to be normal and do normal things.”
In 2006, just two years after the diagnosis, the family made their way to the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas, thanks to Make-A-Wish.
“I remember we did a lot of relaxing,” O’Neill said with a laugh. “It was an incredible place, and I’m glad I picked it because I don’t know if we would’ve been able to go otherwise. It was really cool and a time that we didn’t have to think about things like me growing my hair back, or other side effects. To just be us.”
Now 21, O’Neill was recently featured in a video put together by Westjet, to showcase the stories of 10 Make-A-Wish alumni, who got together to surprise a younger wish recipient.
She was incredibly touched by the opportunity.
“The thing I really liked was being able to meet the other alumni. We were all so familiar with our own stories . . . but we were learning about other people and the extraordinary things they’ve been through.”
These days, O’Neill is a fourth-year biology student at Western, with hopes of becoming a pediatric oncologist, a dream she’s had since her diagnosis.
And as if that wasn’t enough to keep busy, add long-time Make-A-Wish volunteer and Wish Granter to that resume.
When asked what drives her to take on so much, O’Neill said doing her part for an organization that made such a difference in her life is just too important to pass up.
“For a child with a life-threatening illness, the finish line is if you get to complete treatment, but some people don’t get that chance,” she said. “A wish is something that, in the midst of not being able to control their life or circumstances, they can choose.
“It’s another side to physical health that needs to be addressed. As somebody put it really well . . . medicine is what cures the child, and the wish is what cures the family.”