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June 23, 2008
For O'Neills, long wait is over


Molly and Russ O'Neill outside of Fenway Park

With cancer and Iraq behind them, Fenway Park beckons again for Molly and Russ O'Neill (Saul Wisnia photo).

It's hard to find two scarier words than war and cancer. In the case of the O'Neill family of Brookline, both have been spoken daily for far too long. Now, however, they'll be going on the back burner.

On Sunday, June 8, First Lieutenant Russ O'Neill returned to Massachusetts after spending most of the past year in Iraq, where he lead a U.S. Army National Guard unit charged with detecting and disarming bombs and other explosive devices.

Two days later, Russ' little sister Molly celebrated her 12th birthday, and one day after that she celebrated again — this time marking the occasion of her last chemotherapy infusion (done at home with her family and a nurse alongside). After two years dealing with a laundry list of drugs, side effects, and setbacks during treatment for acute lymphocytic leukemia at Dana-Farber and Children's Hospital Boston, Molly will now only be required to make periodic visits to the Jimmy Fund Clinic for checkups.

"It's awesome — very cool," says Molly, who is looking forward to trips to Maine and Red Sox games with Russ and her family this summer. The siblings are not big on long-winded statements, but the love and respect they share is obvious to all who meet them. "Nobody hugged Russ harder when we picked him up than Molly," says dad Steve O'Neill, "and it was just so wonderful that he could be here for her last treatment."

Thus ends a frightening period for the family. Russ, 25, was dispatched to Iraq last August while Molly was having a particularly rough time with her cancer. The two, always close, had bonded even more since her diagnosis in May 2006, and even shaved their heads together as a sign of solidarity after Molly's hair began falling out. It was Russ who sat with Molly watching Red Sox games and sitcoms while she took nightly chemotherapy pills or other drugs, and she took his departure very hard.

As his bedroom across the hall from hers lay empty, she passed the months by sending Russ everything from valentines to homemade necklaces to a photo puzzle. "I didn't know what it was at first; when I put it together, it was Molly holding a 'We miss you' sign," recalls Russ. He got a special thrill when he was able to log on to the Internet this April and watch news footage of Molly representing the Jimmy Fund Clinic by handing the newly-arrived 2007 Red Sox World Series rings to Boston Mayor Thomas Menino at Fenway Park.
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Now the siblings can get back to living "normal" lives. Russ is returning to his job as a Brookline Police Officer, and Molly plans to miss far fewer days at Lincoln Elementary School this coming year. She also hopes to be playing soccer and piano on a regular basis, something that cancer made impossible.

"The whole experience feels a little surreal," says Steve O'Neill. "We're looking very forward to being a nice, boring family again."

And, more importantly, an intact one.

— Saul Wisnia
saul_wisnia@dfci.harvard.edu