Four Years Later, Couple Reflects on Shared Cancer Journey
Feb 01, 2021 Nicole Levine
A text flashed on Dan O'Brien's phone while he was casting one of his plays in 2015. "It is cancer," his wife, Jessica St. Clair, wrote.
They were both younger than the standard screening ages for their cancers when they were diagnosed: Jessica was 38 and Dan was 42. Both sought treatment at Cedars-Sinai.
"It's a terrible, scary, frightening and sometimes deadly thing. You can come through it in a way where you feel happier and stronger. Your relationships are deeper. People come through for you in amazing ways"
"I remember one dark moment wondering, 'Am I always going to feel sad like this? Am I always going to feel scared?'" Jessica says. "Now when I meet someone who is in that same place, I tell them the thing I could hardly believe the first time I heard it: 'You're going to be OK. More than that. You're going to be happier when you're done with this than you were before.'"
Jessica is an actor, whose many credits include HBO's Avenue 5 and a comedy series she created and starred in with her best friend Lennon Parham, Playing House. Dan is an award-winning playwright and poet.
As artists, they avoid clichés as a rule. Now they joyfully admit some clichés have come true for them: They appreciate life more. They take more risks in pursuing the things that make them happy and sharing their stories through their art. They're closer to their friends.
"It's a terrible, scary, frightening and sometimes deadly thing," Dan says. "You can come through it in a way where you feel happier and stronger. Your relationships are deeper. People come through for you in amazing ways"
If the options in a crisis are "fight or flight," Jessica's choice is "fight." When she was diagnosed, she picked the most aggressive treatment option: a double mastectomy followed by chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
"Dr. McAndrew wanted to make sure it was as pain-free as possible," Jessica says. "And she and her team did."
Then she talked to every breast cancer caregiver and patient she met to explore every "cancer hack" they suggested. She tried cooling caps intended to reduce hair loss, frozen mittens and booties, twice-weekly acupuncture and supplements.
"We really wanted to shield our daughter from being scared," Jessica says. "And she never knew I was sick."
Now when she talks with women who are newly diagnosed, Jessica does what others did for her—she drops everything and talks with them. And the most effective hack she found: Hope and trust that happiness and health will return.
Surviving colon cancer
While his wife was in chemotherapy treatments, Dan started to suspect he might be having health problems.
"Some part of my brain didn't want to deal with another potential calamity," he says. "I put off getting it checked out, and by the time I did, it was a serious situation."
He had a visit with Dr. Kevin Scher at Tower Hematology Oncology to discuss the results of a PET scan. Jessica wheeled her IV down the hallway from where she was getting her final chemotherapy infusion to hear the news. Dan had colon cancer and two lesions on his liver.
"The best doctors, the ones who are at the top of their game, are able to be rational, deliver hard news and make hard decisions," Dan says. "But they also understand emotionally what you're going through. That was our experience with our doctors."
First, Dan had a colon resection followed by four months of chemotherapy in an attempt to shrink the lesions on his liver. The therapy was successful, and a small portion of his liver was removed. He then had an addition two months of chemotherapy.
Today, there is no evidence of any cancer and his body—a term often shortened to NED for "no evidence of disease." Dan has been free of any cancer since his treatment ended in December 2016.
"When they say stage 4, you tend to assume that's it," Jessica says. "But that's just not true. I really want to get the word out about this. Stage 4 means it spread.
"But they may be able to cut it out. You may be able to shrink it. You can be OK. And drugs are being invented and studied every day."
Letting in the light
Dan shares that every day during his treatment, he opened the curtains in his bedroom and let in the light, telling himself he would live.
When he talks about cancer, he points to the sense of shame people often associate with the disease.
"I try to pull it out of the shadows and talk about it," he says. "People—or the culture—seem to think it's your fault if you get cancer."
He tries to channel the fear and anxiety about cancer to a positive message: Be screened early.
While there are standard screening criteria, people with family histories of cancer may be eligible for additional screening. Experts routinely encourage people to talk with their doctors about their personal risk and build a plan.
They've also shared their experiences through their art. Jessica wrote the last season of her show Playing House about her cancer journey and is now working on a book about her experiences. Dan wrote a poetry collection called Our Cancers that will be published in 2021.
Both Dan and Jessica share a memory of being in a waiting room while Dan was in treatment. An older woman walked over to Dan and clasped his hand. "You will have long days on this earth. Keep trusting," she said.
"At the time, I understood it clearly to mean she was saying I would survive," Dan says. "Keep trusting through the challenges of treatment."
They carry that trust with them and continue to pass it on to others.