Home » Focus is a Muscle by Connor O’Leary at TEDxUIUC (Full Transcript)

Focus is a Muscle by Connor O’Leary at TEDxUIUC (Full Transcript)

If you lose focus for even one second in this race, you could not only potentially harm or kill yourself but others in the peloton. It was a necessity to force me to hone my focus muscle for these races. And so I worked and worked out for years. And little did I know that my ability to focus would not only help me in my cycling career but it would ultimately end up saving my life.

I was 19 years old and I was racing with the US national team in Europe. And everything was great. Our team is doing really well and I was living in Belgium. I mean, how could things not be great? But I had this nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right. And I thought to myself it’s probably just the intense race schedule wearing me down. And so I brushed it off. But ultimately I did end up going to the doctor. And the last thing on earth I expected to hear was ‘you have cancer’. There’s something that happens when you get news like that. It’s like your heart stops pumping blood for a second, making your blood freeze in place, making your entire body feel like it’s completely dead. Just for a split second you go numb and then it hits you. Your new reality is cancer — a word so foreign, you have no idea where to even start.

Now I really felt like my body had betrayed me. For seven years, I had focused on training well, eating well, putting all this time and enduring all of this pain. I had focused on being healthy and fit. And at first, I was determined to keep training, to do it have been working for me for so many years. But not long after I started my treatment, I felt like I couldn’t think it all, never mind focusing on racing, training or even getting strong. I mean, I could not focus on anything. But I was determined that cancer wasn’t going to change me.

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So I tried to keep going, with school, with racing, and with getting well. The days really did seem never ending. For seven hours a day, five days a week I set tethered to this chair in the infusion room at the Huntsman Cancer Center while I watched the chemo drip through my veins through this port that I had surgically implanted into my chest. I desperately tried to hang on to that awesome life that I’ve had just five months earlier but my focus was diminishing.

Chemo and cancer had really robbed me of my ability to focus, which is sometimes known as chemo brain. And I learned that if I was going to get better, if I was going to beat this disease, I needed to identify the essential and eliminate the rest. So that’s exactly what I did.

I stopped riding. My body was really becoming too weak anyways. I dropped all my classes that semester and I focused all of my time and energy on to one thing: beating cancer. And eventually my treatment was almost over, and I was like this hallelujah moment. I could see the end of the road. It was my second to last round of chemotherapy, and I started to experience this really crazy pain in my left collarbone. It was kind of a dull pain and it was not something I never experienced before. But trust me I had been experiencing a lot of new pains that year. And so I brushed it off as another indication that the chemo was probably just doing its thing.

But then a few hours later, that pain moved from my collarbone into my chest and shoulder blade. And at that point I was like okay, what’s going on? But again I self-diagnosed it, claiming that I must have pulled a muscle or that it was just another reaction of the chemo drugs.

But that night, that pain moved from those other places to my back and my rib cage. And I literally felt like I had been shot. Now I’ve never actually been shot. But I’m assuming that it feels something like that. It literally felt like I’ve broken every rib I had. So that night I remember sleeping in this chair in my parents’ living room. And I scoured the entire house for any painkiller I could find. The pain was absolutely excruciating. I couldn’t drink, eat, sleep or even lay down. The pain was so bad.

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In the next morning, my parents came into the living room and saw me sitting in that chair. And at that point they knew they needed to get me to the ER, so they rushed me to the ER. And at that point I was literally on the verge of passing out. My pain level was through the roof and my heart was racing out of control. In the ER, the doctor came in and he told me, “Connor, you’re lucky to be alive”. He explained to me that I had pulmonary emboli which are basically big blood clots, and that they had exploded in my lungs like hand grenades, and that I still had one large plot hanging off of that port in my heart. And that they were still extremely worried that it could break loose and go to my brain. And trust me we definitely did not want that.

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