Two things went through Jim O’Hara’s mind that day in January 1996 when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer: He didn’t have time to be sick, and he didn’t want anyone to know.
A self-described workaholic, the Rochester, N.Y., native was accustomed to a 50- to 60-hour workweek, not including work he took home. As director of information systems for a manufacturing company, he wasn’t about to take six weeks off for surgery.
He also didn’t want to tell anyone about his cancer at first, not even his wife, Linda. But that was typical. It had been more than 30 years since the high school sweethearts had married, and he still didn’t talk to her about his health.
“I never knew if he even had a headache,” Linda O’Hara says. “He didn’t even tell me he was going to get these tests because he didn’t want me to worry. I said, ‘It’s worse if I think you’re keeping things from me than me dealing with it.’”
So they responded to the news by educating themselves about the disease. O’Hara laughs about it now. “I’m the kind of person who researches more than is needed,” he says. “I spent 30 years in (information systems). I have to research to the ‘nth’ degree.”
Part of his self-education was attending two support groups—one for prostate cancer and one for cryosurgery, the treatment he ultimately selected, in which cancer cells are frozen and destroyed. He has been cancer-free ever since.
“I got a lot of good support,” he recalls. “I really appreciated the help. I felt I had a big debt to repay.”
In 1998, at age 56, O’Hara decided to begin paying back. He took early retirement and the couple moved to Georgia to be closer to their son and daughter-in-law, Dan and Julie, and their young grandchildren, Kari and Eric (featured on the cover). They bought a home in Peachtree City, just south of Atlanta.
He called the local American Cancer Society office to find a prostate cancer support group and found that no such group existed in that part of Georgia. That responsibility fell to the community cancer control manager, a position that was vacant.
When Debby Tourville filled the job in May 1999, she immediately was handed several telephone messages O’Hara had left in preceding months that read he was “interested in helping out.” With five counties to cover, she needed all the help she could get.
“I hit the jackpot when I found Jim O’Hara,” she says. “I felt so fortunate that I had someone who was so interested and so capable.”
Together, they organized a monthly Man to Man support group at a nearby hospital. O’Hara took responsibility for lining up speakers and staying abreast of current information. He also volunteered to give awareness talks and attend community events to spread the word about early detection and treatment.
“With prostate cancer, we have a really good test,” he says. “So many people need to know about this.” Testing is especially important because many men are like O’Hara, who had none of the cancer’s symptoms, which include urinary tract details that most people are uncomfortable sharing.
But O’Hara knows that someone else’s survival may depend on his openness, so the man who wouldn’t discuss health issues with his wife is now an articulate expert on every aspect of the prostate.
“That’s a huge difference,” Linda says. “He was so private. Now he shares things I never would have imagined.”
O’Hara’s commitment to prostate cancer education has been so valuable that Tourville secretly nominated him for the Fayette County United Way’s Volunteer of the Year award in spring 2001. When she learned he was a finalist, it took a little friendly deception, and Linda’s help, to get him to the luncheon.
“He wanted me to give the seat to another volunteer,” Tourville says. “I knew in my heart he would win because he was so deserving.”
Glancing at the award in his home office, O’Hara downplays his role.
“I’m not alone in this,” is about the most he’ll say about it.
‘You’re not alone’
The 30-plus hours a week O’Hara gives to the Cancer Society are only part of his advocacy efforts. He spends hours on his home computer, answering questions posted on prostate cancer websites. Two phone lines handle the incoming calls, and a closet is stacked with information he sends out across the country.
That’s the part of his volunteer work that Linda O’Hara likes the best. As she listens to him explain a test result or a procedure to a frightened individual, she knows that her “volunteer-a-holic” is making a tremendous difference in a person’s life.
“People call him and I hear the knowledge he has, explaining some of the terms they didn’t understand or were afraid to ask the doctor,” she says. “He’s done such a thorough job of research. He’s very compassionate with people, and he has a lot of patience.”
Among those he’s helped is Clyde Pike Jr., a retired airlines quality control inspector, who joined the Man to Man support group after he was diagnosed in late 2000.
“When you’re first diagnosed, you’re in the doldrums, down in the dumps and feeling sorry for yourself,” Pike says. “Going to the support group lets you know you’re not alone.”
O’Hara and the other group members also gave him good information on treatments. Several months after Pike opted for surgery, he remained cancer-free. Unlike many members of the group who attend in the early days of their diagnosis and then leave, Pike has stayed involved, to learn and help others.
“It’s very informative,” he explains. “They have different speakers. Jim has done a great job of lining them up. The people you meet in the meetings are going through different problems. I basically go now to see if there’s someone else who needs some advice.”
With that kind of results, it might seem that O’Hara has repaid his debt to the support group leaders who helped him through the early days of his diagnosis and treatment.
He doesn’t see it that way. “I look at life in phases,” he says. “There’s a learning phase when you’re young, an earning phase, and then a pay-back phase. Prostate cancer just convinced me to get into the pay-back phase faster.”