HACKENSACK, N.J. — Four years ago, Fair Lawn’s Sean O’Malley was filled with just as much enthusiasm to kick-start his high school career as any 14-year-old. A lover of sports, he served on the volleyball team in the fall of 2016 before making varsity ice hockey in the winter. But as he glided off the ice at the conclusion of a successful season, a trip to the doctor in the spring of the following year revealed a devastating blow: a leukemia diagnosis.
Leukemia, a rare form of blood cancer, thwarts the body’s ability to fight infection. Despite the fear and bewilderment that loomed over his and his family’s mind, O’Malley wasn’t reactive. In the true fashion of any athlete dealt an unlucky hand, he took it in stride. In between receiving chemotherapy treatments at Hackensack Meridian Children’s Cancer Institute, he excelled academically and even made a brief comeback to the ice his junior year.
This year, the 18-year-old finished his last round of chemotherapy in early August and continues to be in remission as his condition is being monitored. This past summer, the National Honors Society member and honor roll student graduated from Fair Lawn High School with a scholarship to the University of Delaware where he is plans to major in engineering.
“I would always be looking forward to being able to go to college when I was sick and having a bad day,” said O’Malley by phone.
For a young person with a cancer diagnosis, he derived great joy in navigating through challenges and problem-solving, a key skill for engineers.
While her youngest son was going for cancer treatments at the institute which boasts over 100 active oncology and transplant clinical trials, and being cared for by a doting nursing staff, his mother Anne empowered herself by participating in 5K runs to benefit pediatric cancer research. Among them, the 2018 United Airlines NYC Half-Marathon and worked tirelessly to raise money for Tackle Kids Cancer, an initiative started by the Children’s Cancer Institute and the New York Giants to raise much-needed funds to advance cancer research to find a cure, and to equip physicians with the resources necessary to provide patients with top-tier care. Sean has since been an MVP in the campaign.
“I know that research is such a big part of what I’d like to contribute,” said Anne. “Children and their families need to raise awareness for children who can’t speak for themselves.”
Earlier this month, O’Malley took the time to reflect on his trials and tribulations and the importance of upholding an optimistic mindset through adversity.
“The most important thing is, everything’s going to work out eventually,” he said, looking back at his predicament. “You just have to keep a positive attitude and really just take it one day at a time.”
“We are beyond proud,” said Anne of her son’s journey. “My husband and I and the entire family were all scared, and we didn’t know anything about this disease. He was the same kid he always was from the very beginning. He had a good attitude, ‘just get through today, get through little by little… he never seemed like he felt sorry for himself.”
On June 25, O’Malley joined over two dozen fellow patients who underwent cancer treatment at the hospital for a virtual commencement ceremony to salute the Class of 2020. Organizer Sarah Donnangelo, school liaison, Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital, said the stars aligned for the virtual graduation, the first of its kind given the current Covid-19 pandemic.
“We don’t let these illnesses and situations defeat the kids,” said Donnangelo. “I think that’s the whole point in celebrating the milestone with the families. [A cancer diagnosis] is a minor glitch in the road. It doesn’t prevent them from reaching their goals.”
O’Malley was awarded the Tom Coughlin Jay Fund’s 2020 Barry Family Scholarship.
“It feels good to know people believe in me enough to reward me with this,” said O’Malley. “It shows that there’s always a bright side, and during this whole journey there’s been so much support from everyone around me.”
During the virtual ceremony, William Coyle received the 2020 Tom Coughlin Jay Fund Dell Scholarship and a Radio City Rockette personally praised Gabrielle Peko who was bestowed with the Garden of Dreams Inspire Scholarship. Ashanti Columbie, Caylin Batt and Jesus Sanchez received the Kyle Egan Scholarship, named for the late patient who passed of osteosarcoma less than two years after his diagnosis.
Boxing personality Bruce Buffer called the graduates champions and that the day marked the first day of the rest of their lives. Pre-recorded words of encouragement also came from former New York Giant Mark Herzlich, NBC 4 New York reporter David Ushery and Valentin Chmerkovskiy of ABC’s Dancing With the Stars.
“You are in a brotherhood and sisterhood with me, with survivors, and with people who not only have survived, but are striving after,” said Herzlich.
Chmerkovskiy told the patients they are the definition of strength and resilience admirable for their “never-give-up attitude.”
“You have overcome so many obstacles. Beyond just academics, which are hard enough, if anyone can handle this, it is you guys,” he said. “… I don’t even know you personally, but I am so proud of you because you didn’t defy the odds, you didn’t just persevere, you got an education and developed.”
Ushery, who read each individual patient’s biography, said he was floored by what he learned personally from each graduate about their strength and perseverance from being sick on top of dealing with schoolwork and other obligations.
“For some kids, graduating from high school is their greatest challenge, but we know you have all been confronted with real challenges long before today,” he said. “You faced the challenge of a life-threatening disease. You know how to be strong. You’re fighters. You’ve all learned how powerful you are, and with that power, you now have the will to do anything you want in this world.”