Practicing Advocacy, Living With Breast Cancer

Maggie O’Brennan, breast cancer survivor and elder and child advocate, has transformed her life’s tragedies into her life’s work

Newton’s third law of motion says that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

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Maggie O’Brennan knows this only too well. O’Brennan, 61, of York, Pa., has countered injustices with positivity and enthusiasm, to help those around her.

“I am truly a blessed person who has been led to do the right thing, even if I had to be forced into it,” says O’Brennan, a breast cancer survivor and advocate for children and the elderly.

The Day That Changed Her Life

O’Brennan’s story begins in 1991 when, fed up with her job as a bank manager and considering making the switch to a human services field, she resigned. That very night, her daughter called to say that her boyfriend, Mark, had been shot while sitting in his car and was in the hospital.

O’Brennan, who hadn’t yet met Mark, drove to Baltimore where the incident happened, to see him. “There was an instant connection,” she says.

She recalls that for the next nine months while she was out of work, she visited Mark and helped care for him until he died, in August of 1992, two weeks after his son — O’Brennan’s grandchild — was born. “Mark was in a coma and never got to see his child,” she says.

During this time, O’Brennan learned that the man responsible for Mark’s death had begun his life being severely abused and neglected by his parents.

“He had been treated as a throwaway child, not only by his parents, but also by the system that should have been there to intervene on his behalf,” she says.

Advocating to Protect the Innocent

Spurred by what happened to Mark, O’Brennan became a nursing assistant at a York County nursing home in November 1995, and loved the work.

But something was still missing, and she found it the following June — a posting for a paid position with the York County Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) Program.

CASA trains community volunteers to advocate in court for abused and neglected children. Volunteers are appointed by a judge as an objective third party who will look out for a child's best interests in court. It would be O’Brennan’s job to recruit and train advocates for children.

“If I could help to change the life of just one child and keep him or her from growing up as wounded and confused as the young man who shot Mark, then it would all be worth it,” she says.

Advocacy for the Elderly

O’Brennan was barely settled in her dream job when another personal disaster struck: She was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 1996 and had her first mastectomy the following month. Her marriage collapsed at the same time.

After the divorce, she realized she had to get a second job to survive. Luck, or providence, was with her. “I received a call from a nurse I had worked with previously,” O’Brennan explains. She was needed back at the nursing home, to work overnight. This also marked the start of her volunteer advocacy for the elderly. She had a way of comforting patients that made them feel better.

In 2004, O'Brennan developed a different type of breast cancer and her doctors told her they had caught it early. She needed another mastectomy, but no further treatment after the surgery.

But last year, she developed an unexplained pain.

“I kept insisting something was wrong and the doctors kept telling me it was arthritis.” After a good deal of complaining on her part, the doctors finally diagnosed a compression fracture of a lumbar vertebra and operated on her spine. “I have a very high tolerance for pain,” says O’Brennan, who had been walking around with that fracture from April until the end of August 2008.

Advocacy Is Still Part of Her Life Today

She is still in severe pain, still works at CASA, and still volunteers as an elderly advocate.

“Advocating for Mark was the beginning of my medical advocacy for my patients and for me,” says O’Brennan. “I am hoping to make changes not just for me, but also for all patients who have to go through this process.”

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