By Jamil Abdur-Rahman, M.D., FACOG
Life is a race that we are all running, and the circumstances surrounding this race that we all find ourselves participating in can at times be utterly amazing. At other times these circumstances can also be frightening, humorous, ironic, seemingly contradictory or even outright paradoxical, and yet here we are, runners running and racers racing. Here we are people running a race with a clearly defined, if not somewhat mysterious starting point. And here we are people running a race with a clearly defined, though somewhat unenviable finish line. But while our starting points and our finish lines are all identical, our races are each as individual as the people are who are running them. And so it seems that what ultimately differentiates us from one and other as racers and as people is the individual race that we each run. It’s the decisions that we make while racing, the challenges that we accept or shy away from, the ways in which we handle success and failure and the direction or directions that we choose to take in life that ultimately differentiate and define us. And I’ve come to realize that while there are lots and lots of people sharing this big blue marble with us living their lives and racing their races, there are seemingly very few human beings. Today however I want to introduce you all to two truly genuine human beings, Dave and Connor O’ Leary. Dave and Connor are a Father and Son who individually and together have run one hell of an amazing race, and I mean that both literally and figuratively. Literally speaking, Dave and Connor were in fact the first Parent/Child team ever to win CBS’ The Amazing Race. In addition though Dave and Connor are also both cancer survivors, world travelers, inspirational figures and genuinely quality human beings.
I met Dave and Connor for the first time when competing against them with my brother Idries on season 22 of The Amazing Race. After driving like mad people through the streets of Los Angeles in an attempt to be among the first teams to check in at LAX for our flight to Bora Bora, we all found ourselves with some down time as we all sat at an Air Tahiti Nui gate waiting for our flight to board. So I made my way over to Dave and Connor who I had seen at various casting activities in the months prior to The Race, but who up until that point I had not met, and I introduced myself. During the course of conversation that ensued, Dave, after I revealed to him that Idries and I were medical doctors, shared with me that he was a prostate cancer survivor. He mentioned this to me in a very matter of fact, almost resolute “yeah that happened” sort of manner. But then that very matter of fact demeanor quickly faded away and his eyes began to fill with tears as what had previously been his fairly stiff upper lip began to quiver. He then shared with me that he was not the only cancer survivor in his family and he looked towards his son Connor who was seated at the time right next to him. Connor then kind of looked over at his Dad with this expression that said “come on Dad were racing here, there will be time for that later” before he then shared with me that he too was in fact a cancer survivor, having been diagnosed with and subsequently cured of testicular cancer. Connor, having then assumed what had been his Dad’s very matter of fact resolute demeanor before it melt away into a puddle of tears, went on to tell me about how his cancer was diagnosed and treated, making it all seem like “yeah it’s no big deal, nothing remarkable to see here”. The next two things that Connor would say to me however I found to be quite remarkable and they really caught my attention as they belied the fact that his fight with cancer was a much bigger deal than he cared to admit and was anything but typical.
The first remarkable thing that Connor said was in response to my asking him what the worst part of his entire cancer ordeal was. Without having to even ponder on that question for a millisecond he responded by saying that the toughest part of his entire cancer ordeal was when he developed bilateral pulmonary embolisms, or blood clots in both of his lungs, while undergoing cancer treatment. I stopped him right there and asked him if I had heard him say what I thought that I had heard him say? I asked him “did you just say that you have not only survived cancer but that you have also survived bilateral pulmonary embolisms”? When he told me yes I began to wonder whether or not I was sitting next to the living incarnation of Bruce Willis’ character from the movie Unbreakable. I had to figuratively bow down to Connor right there in that airport terminal as I told him what he no doubt already knew at that point, that pulmonary embolisms, especially bilateral pulmonary embolisms can be and often times are VERY deadly! After all we’ve only got two lungs so when you’ve got clots blocking blood flow to both of them, most times that’s all she wrote. I then recounted for Connor and his father the story of a patient who’s care I had been involved in that demonstrated the potentially deadly nature of pulmonary embolisms. I certainly was not trying to be a killjoy as we all sat there at LAX getting ready for what was possibly going to be the adventure of a lifetime, but I was so in awe of what Connor had just told me that I felt the need to validate just how fortunate he was. The patient I told Connor and Dave about was a woman who much like Connor had been diagnosed with cancer. Her cancer however was a cancer of the uterus. Two days earlier she had undergone an uncomplicated hysterectomy in an effort to remove her cancer and on the second morning after surgery she was making brilliant progress. It fact when I went to round on her on that morning she told me that she felt strong and was ready to start walking. We as doctors LOVE for our patients to get up and about after surgery so I encouraged her and even gave her a hand to help her up out of bed. As soon as she arose she took one step, gasped deeply for breath, grabbed my shirt collar with a look of utter terror in her eyes, said “help me” and then collapsed back into her bed almost taking me down with her. And in-spite of this happening in a hospital, with everything that I could ever need to successfully resuscitate a person at my disposal, I along with a team of many other doctors and nurses tried unsuccessfully to save this woman’s life. Someone who just minutes before had literally been talking to me was now laying there dead. As it turned out she too suffered a massive pulmonary embolism. As I recounted this story I told Connor that he was either lucky, blessed or a little bit of both and I quietly realized for the first time that these two guys sitting right next to me were going to be some stiff competition.
The second remarkable thing that Connor (who is also a professional cyclist) told me while we were talking about his cancer ordeal involved his relationship with Lance Armstrong. He told me that after his cancer diagnosis Armstrong reached out to him and his family and both Dave and Connor were effusive in their praise of Armstrong. They said that Armstrong provided both material support and emotional support and they had truly nothing but positive things to say about the disgraced former Tour De France winner. Now keep in mind that this was during the height of the Lance Armstrong hub bub and people around us having overheard our conversation began to chime in and say negative things about Armstrong and his character. But Dave and Connor nevertheless remained resolute in their position as it related to Armstrong and what he had meant to them and their family and so I resolved at that point that I would one day try to delve a little bit further into the subject of Armstrong with them if the opportunity presented itself. Knowing that society and the media have a funny way of presenting one overarching narrative when it comes to certain people, places and things, I was eager to hear another narrative as it related to Armstrong from people who actually knew the man. More on Armstrong from Dave and Connor later………
Ultimately during season 22 of The Amazing Race both of our team’s competitions ended earlier than we would have hoped. Idries and my season ended after our fear of deep ocean water did us in in a most unceremonious and slightly embarrassing fashion while Dave and Connor’s season ended after Dave suffered a freak leg injury involving his Achilles tendon and his calf. One year later though after Dave and his injured leg had been surgically repaired and extensively rehabbed, CBS offered Dave and Connor a chance at redemption and they jumped at it. And as it turned out nothing was going to stand in their way the second time around. The second time around Dave and Connor not only completed The Amazing Race, they actually won it, finishing first during season 24 of The Race. Dave and Connor have overcome tremendous odds both as victorious Amazing Racers on TV and as people running life’s race. Like I said before, all of us racers have identical starting lines and identical finish lines, but it is the race that we run, the decisions that we make, the challenges that we accept or shy away, the ways in which we handle success and failure and the direction or directions that we will choose that ultimately differentiate and define us. The way in which Dave and Connor have run their races thus far has made them into tremendous human beings and they were cool enough to share some of their experiences, wisdom and perspectives on life with us. I hope you enjoy.
Dr. Jamil: How did it feel to win The Amazing Race All-Stars season, especially after injury forced you guys to drop out of Season 22 one year earlier? Did you guys have any reservations about racing again on All-Stars season?
Dave: It was unbelievable and candidly I did not think that we had a chance of winning it all. Having self-eliminated in Season 22 after rupturing my Achilles tendon we were really grateful to have a chance to come back for All Stars. For me, All Stars was a year out from my Achilles tendon surgery and so I was a little nervous about the possibility of re-injury and we were certainly apprehensive about racing against all the teams which had more Amazing Race experience than we had, especially teams like the Cowboys (i.e. Rodeo Brothers Cord and Jet McCoy).
Connor: Winning season 24 was incredible, and to be honest, it still doesn’t feel real. From the outset, winning was not our main objective, it was just to make it to the final three teams so we could run the entire race. As we made it further, we thought, “maybe there is a chance we can win this thing.” It was an amazing experience. When we had to leave season 22, it was hard. I had wanted to be on the show for so long, and it was hard to have to leave the race with an injury that was out of our control. When we heard from CBS that they were doing the All-Stars and they wanted us to participate we were both ecstatic. I definitely didn’t have any reservations about running a second time. I am not sure about my dad, but I was all for it, and didn’t care, I was going to make him race whether he liked it or not… just kidding.
Dr. Jamil: Dave, in the immediate moments following your injury during season 22, did you know that your injury was serious and what was it that motivated you to battle through the injury for the next few legs before ultimately withdrawing?
Dave: While running to the mat in Bora Bora (Season 22, leg 1), I felt one snap and then the next step another snap. I immediately knew that my Achilles had ruptured, but learned later that I had also torn my calf muscle. Our sound man would later tell us that he had heard the loud “POP” when my Achilles ruptured. To say the least both Connor and I were devastated by the injury. Connor was a great teammate though and essentially said that we needed to quit. So I thought that we would need to quit immediately as well. But we were in Bora Bora so we both knew that there was no quick way home and I really did not know what the process might be like to withdraw anyway. Then The Race got me some crutches and a boot to wear and I found that I was able to move around okay, so we decided to stay and try and complete the next leg (New Zealand). Once we completed that leg (which we won by virtue of having the Express Pass) we planned to withdraw from The Race. Boy were we surprised to find out that that leg of The Race was a continuing leg and that we were still racing and on our way next to Bali. But we figured what the heck, I felt ok and so we took off for Bali. While traveling to Bali, I got to remove the boot and had an opportunity to look at my leg and it was pretty ugly (black, blue and yellow) and swollen. Connor saw it as well and said that we needed to withdraw. I knew I needed to get input from a Doctor once we completed the leg in Bali (a leg that we actually won, thanks to Connor). Following that leg, The Race got in contact with an Orthopedic Surgeon and I learned that I had a certain window of time within which I needed to have surgery. So we made the decision to withdraw in Vietnam, where the next leg of The Race would end. The Race was great and so helpful throughout the entire process. It was incredibly difficult to tell Phil (Amazing Race host Phil Keoghan) that we had decided to withdraw from the competition and it was a huge disappointment to find out that we were the only team to ever voluntarily withdraw from The Amazing Race.
Dr. Jamil: Now Dave’s Achilles injury was not the first time that you two have faced adversity nor was your victory during All-Stars the first time that you two have overcome great odds and found yourselves standing together victorious. Can you each tell us about your individual battles with cancer and about how these battles with cancer shaped you each into the competitors that you were on The Race and into the people that you have become in your daily lives?
Dave: Boy, you know how to ask questions that can get a grown man to cry. Fortunately for us, we both won what we consider to be the most Amazing Race of all, that of beating cancer. In my case I was diagnosed in 2007 with prostate cancer, which is pretty common in older men, but I was only 53 at the time. I was fortunate to have caught it early, and had successful surgery which cured me (a close friend died 2 years later from prostate cancer he did not diagnose early). I will never forget the day that I told my five kids (each separately) that I had cancer, and really did my best to minimize the severity of the diagnosis. Unfortunately, Connor’s best friends’ dad had recently died from cancer, so despite my preamble of “this will sound much worse than it is” he totally broke down when I told him, which broke my heart and we both sobbed together. To say the least, I am thankful every day that I caught my cancer early.
Connor was diagnosed in 2010, three days after he turned 19. He was the picture of health, cycling professionally and was scheduled to leave the following day to race in the USA Cycling National Championship. What I thought would be a routine appointment ended up changing our lives, especially his and he went from racing his bike, to racing for life. He had surgery and we thought that we had beaten it and that he could get on with his life, but in a follow up we learned that his tumor markers (*1) had increased and that he would have to undergo a rigorous series of Chemotherapy treatments (more on that later).
When you learn that you have cancer, it changes your life because it has the ability to change your life in so many ways. Like on The Amazing Race, attitude is so important when fighting cancer and it played a huge part in how we (especially Connor) were able to beat the disease. To beat cancer and to win The Amazing Race, there is also a certain amount of luck involved, and we were fortunate to have good luck in both.
Connor: In 2010 I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. I was 19 at the time and I was racing in Europe with the US National team. While there I started to feel really fatigued and had some discomfort as well. So I went to the team doctors, and the last thing I expected to hear was, YOU. HAVE. CANCER! It was hard news to take and it was extremely unexpected. I quickly had surgery though and then started chemotherapy. Cancer is a bumpy road for sure, but it teaches some incredible lessons along the way, and believe it or not I wouldn’t trade the experiences that I had with cancer for anything. It was a great reality check, especially at 19. Up until that point I had never had any real traumatic experiences, and I kind of felt like I was bulletproof. Cancer definitely humbled me though, and it made me realize as cliché as this sounds, that every day is a gift, and to take advantage of every opportunity. That is really what spurred my dad and I into applying to be on The Amazing Race.
Dr. Jamil: Idries and I remember the first time that we met you guys during taping for season 22 of The Amazing Race at LAX airport. He and I were struck by how openly both of you shared details of your fights against cancer. We were both particularly struck by how raw and unfiltered Dave’s emotions were when talking about Connor’s cancer diagnosis and his fight, and as Fathers we both identified with these emotions a great deal. Can each of you remember the first thing you thought when you learned about your own cancer diagnosis and the first thing that you thought when you learned about the other’s cancer diagnosis?
Dave: I was at the appointment with Connor when we learned he had cancer. It was devastating and I really thought to myself at the time that “this can’t be happening”. Just two months before Connor had been to a family Doctor who told him that he was fine, but Connor still felt like something wasn’t right. So at his insistence I made an appointment for him to see a Urologist, expecting of course that everything would be normal. When the Urologist said “you have cancer”, I think we both were in a little bit of shock and disbelief. I called my wife from the exam room and we both just sobbed. That night all my kids were together to demonstrate their love for Connor and to exercise our combined faith on his behalf.
When I learned that I had cancer, I was alone and got the news over the phone following a pathology report. The Urologist was reassuring that it was unlikely to have spread, but I had recently had lunch with a High School friend who was dying from the same disease, so that was fresh in my mind. I was frightened and worried, not so much about me, but more about my family.
Connor: Well, first off, my dad could cry mowing the lawn, so it doesn’t take much! But seriously, hearing the news that you or a loved one has cancer is never fun. When I learned about my diagnosis it was hard, but it was nothing compared to hearing about my father’s diagnosis. Hearing the news that my dad had cancer was extremely tough. I remember I was in the kitchen in my parent’s house, and my parents told me the news that my dad had cancer. I broke down, and just started to cry. I felt paralyzed; I will never forget that day. My best friend’s father had just passed away from cancer not long before my Dad’s diagnosis, so nothing he said could reassure me. It was amazing to see how much our family rallied in both situations though and the family bond helped so much.
Dr. Jamil: Can you each tell us about the darkest day that you personally experienced during your own fights against cancer and about the darkest day that you each experienced during the other’s fight against cancer?
Dave: My darkest day in my fight against cancer was the day I told my kids I had the disease. I thought I would be fine, but there is always that tiny bit of doubt and I knew that if I did not treat the disease successfully it could ultimately be fatal.
There were many dark days for me during Connor’s fight, but the darkest day was probably when he was just about complete with chemotherapy and started to have shoulder pain. We passed it off as sore muscles, but it continued to get worse. Finally I had a neighbor (who’s an Orthopedic Surgeon) come by early one morning as Connor had spent the previous night sitting up in a chair because of pain. The Doctor knew right away that it was not muscular pain and told us to get Connor to the Emergency Room immediately. We got to the ER and Connor was rushed in. Almost immediately it was determined that he had blood clots that had exploded like hand grenades in both of his lungs and that there was a large clot still clinging to the port implanted into his chest/heart that was used to administer Chemotherapy drugs (*2). We really thought we could lose him, especially if the clot broke off of the port and traveled to his brain. He was in intensive care for seven days, his resting heart rate was in the 160’s and he was so weak he could not get out of bed (*3).
Connor: I would say that the darkest day for me was when I was almost finished with my treatment and then suffered from pulmonary emboli in both my lungs. I spent a week and a half or so in Intensive Care, while blood thinners ran through my veins breaking down the clots.
Dr. Jamil: Life goes on and you both have demonstrated that there can be a great deal of happiness and success after cancer. I think that many people will find that to be so inspirational. What would each of you tell someone who has just learned that they have cancer?
Dave: I learned more from watching Connor than I learned from my own experience. I keep a note in my phone that says “Cancer may leave your body, but it never leaves your life”. There is not a truer statement. Cancer changes you and makes you appreciate each day a little bit more. For someone recently diagnosed or already fighting the battle, I would say have faith, hold on and don’t give up. Cancer is a roller coaster ride and there are highs and lows. Your attitude will make all the difference in getting you through those lows and it will help you to better appreciate those highs. Have faith in yourself, and in those that are treating you, and whatever Supreme Being you believe in, because there is real healing power that comes through that faith.
Connor: Life does go on, and I have found so much success and happiness after cancer. I want people to know that there is life after cancer, I promise. It can be hard to see that light at the end of the tunnel, but it is there, and when you make it out on the other side, you will be a different person… a much stronger person. Cancer taught me so many valuable lessons, and some of those lessons I couldn’t have learned any other way.
Dr. Jamil: Dave, what would you tell a parent who has just learned that their child has been diagnosed with cancer?
Dave: Have hope and faith. We are so blessed to have fabulous medical expertise, new technologies and treatment options. Expect help from above but don’t be a bystander, become as informed as you can about what treatment options are available, their success rates, side effects, etc. Advocate for your child. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, even if you think they are stupid questions. Talk to other parents who have been in the battle and learn from them. Accept help from others, this is a war and you need as many soldiers on your side as you can get. We learned about the side effects of chemotherapy from other parents whose kids had been through cancer treatment and this helped us to prepare in advance to minimize those side effects for Connor. As I mentioned in another answer, cancer is a roller coaster and you need to hold on.
Dr. Jamil: We remember you all telling us how helpful and supportive Lance Armstrong was of Connor and your family following Connor’s cancer diagnosis. We all know that the media can create a powerful narrative about people and places and that these narratives can at times become all consuming. For the benefit of our readers, can you share with us how Lance stepped in to help Connor and the O’ Leary family as Connor battled testicular cancer?
Dave: To our family, Lance Armstrong the person, not the cyclist, is a hero, and we will be indebted to him forever. Shortly after Connor was diagnosed, he received an unsolicited, personal email from Lance, just before the start of the Tour de France, where Lance was racing. It essentially said I am sorry to hear what you are going through and wish you all the best in your fight. We thought that was very nice, but then just after the Tour de France ended, Connor received another email from Lance offering any help he could provide, telling Connor to “share my email address with your parents” and offering to have his Doctor (Dr. Lawrence Einhorn, who is a pioneer in the treatment of testicular cancer) make contact so that he and Connor could discuss treatment options. We of course told Lance we would love to hear from Dr. Einhorn and the following day, a Sunday afternoon no less, Dr. Einhorn called our home, spending over an hour on the phone with us. He then later regularly consulted with our oncologist on Connor’s treatment and progress. The chemotherapy treatment for testicular cancer can be damaging to the lungs, and Dr. Einhorn (who developed and wrote the treatment protocol) was able to modify the treatment so that it killed Connor’s cancer without damaging Connor’s lungs.
PS, I proudly wear a yellow LIVESTRONG band on my wrist and have done so since I was diagnosed in 2007.
Connor: I don’t condone what Lance did in the cycling world by any means, but what he did for me personally when dealing with cancer is something I will never forget. He e-mailed me on the day the Tour de France started, wishing me good luck with my treatment and asked if he could put me in touch with the doctor that treated him (Dr. Lawrence Einhorn). Dr. Einhorn is a pioneer in the world of treating testicular cancer. Lance also checked in with me frequently during my treatment to insure that I was doing ok. With Lance’s input Dr. Einhorn consulted with my oncologist to help develop a customized chemotherapy and treatment protocol. It was incredible! I am extremely grateful for the help that he provided for me and my family in that scary time.
Dr. Jamil: It seems like often times it is not until we are each faced with the prospect of our own mortality that we ever take the time to reflect on life and on the existential questions that surround our very existence. That being said, how has cancer changed each of your lives and has your experience with cancer, both as cancer patients and as the loved ones of a cancer patients, changed your philosophy about life and your understandings of what it means to be alive and of why each of us is here?
Dave: Just hearing the words, “you have cancer” changes you. It is such a frightening experience because most of us do not know what it really means. Surviving cancer helps you appreciate every day and in my case it has made me a bit more adventurous and interested in taking advantage of opportunities to do new things, to go new places and to meet new people. It also makes you more aware of the people in your life and it enhances your desire for them to be happy. Cancer is probably what got me to say yes to Connor when he came to me and said “Dad we should apply to be on The Amazing Race”.
I believe life has a divine purpose and surviving cancer makes me more aware of the need to be of service to others, and to really try and understand what my divine purpose or purposes are.
It is much harder as a parent to watch your child battle cancer than it is to have it yourself. Both my wife and I would have gladly taken the disease from our son and onto ourselves if we could have. That being said, cancer matured Connor in a way I never expected. It gave him an appreciation for life and every little thing that goes along with life that most people (especially young people) take for granted. It taught him that he is not bullet proof and that his life has meaning.
Connor: I said it before, and it sounds so cliché, but going through an experience like that really helps you understand how precious life is, and to live life to the fullest. I feel like both my dad and I realize that, and have tried to experience everything life has to offer. Life is a roller coaster, and things will happen every single day that we can’t control. But we can control how we deal with those problems, and cancer taught me to take everything in stride, and try to keep a positive attitude through the hard times.
Dr. Jamil: Dave, who is Connor?
Connor is my hero. He is an incredible young man and he has displayed all of the attributes in his young life that I wish that I could have displayed in my life. He is kind and caring (he loves his mom), he is bright, quick, funny, athletic, humble, has great common sense and a strong faith. When he wants something he is willing to work hard until he achieves it and is not afraid to take reasonable risks. I am proud to be his father and am very lucky to have him as my son.
Dr. Jamil: Connor, who is Dave?
Connor: My dad is one tough old man. I mean that. He is as tough as they come. He is also my best friend, and someone who I learn from every single day. He is the most honest man I have come across, and knows how to have a good time. He is selfless, he loves his family, and he lets us all know that frequently. He is a good dude, and I’m grateful I can call him my dad.
Dr. Jamil: I’ve seen pictures of you two on social media going all over the world with that roaming gnome. So what’s up next for Dave, Connor and the well-traveled roaming Gnome?
Dave: I am proud to say that Connor is now a college graduate (graduated in December 2014 from the University of Utah). As soon as he graduated we took off with The Roaming Gnome on one of the trips we won from Travelocity on The Amazing Race (Season 22, episode 3) and went to Thailand and Myanmar for a month. We had a blast. We continue to spend time together skiing, fishing, cycling and hanging out. I also continue to work in real estate investments (own and operate apartment buildings) and to spend most of my free time traveling and enjoying my family, especially my 8 grandchildren.
You may see us with the Travelocity Roaming Gnome in an upcoming Infomercial beginning sometime in late April. We got to travel to Mexico and San Francisco doing all kinds of fun and amazing stuff with @RoamingGnome in tow. Hopefully more to follow.
Connor: That is a great question! I just finished school in December having graduated from the University of Utah. My dad and I spent a month in Thailand (courtesy of a Travelocity trip from season 22) and I am just enjoying life out of school. I am still riding my bike a lot, and doing some racing. I am also doing some public speaking, which has been great. It has provided some amazing opportunities to share my story with people. Life is great, and I look forward to many adventures ahead!
** 1. Tumor Markers refer to blood tests for chemicals that are elevated in the blood of patients with certain cancers. Physicians often times use tumor markers to diagnosis cancers and to follow the progress of a patient’s response to cancer treatment**
**2. Patient’s with cancer frequently will develop what is called Paraneoplastic Syndrome. One manifestation of Paraneoplastic Syndrome is that the blood of cancer patients tends to clot more quickly than in non-cancer patients. As a result, they are at a higher risk for developing blood clots. Additionally, many cancer patients receive chemotherapy medications through an IV placed in the chest that is called a PortaCath. Sometimes these catheters can serve as a source for clot formation.**
**3. The normal human heart rate is between 60-100. An elevated heart rate is an indication that the body is working extra hard to overcome or to correct a potentially life threatening problem.**