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O'Keefe said cancer took him by surprise

Submitted photo

More information about prostate cancer and its symptoms can be found on the Mayo Clinic website at

Pat and Deb O'Keefe both hope that by being open and honest about his prostate cancer other men will become familiar with the symptoms, see their doctors and insist on the tests necessary to diagnose the disease.

The O'Keefes are a close family that is spread from one coast to the other but regardless of where they lived, their children supported their father in his fight against cancer. Pictured at the wedding of son Derek and his wife Bridget are from left are Deb and Pat O'Keefe, Bridget, sons Brady and Derek, daughter Samantha Hawley and son-in-in Caleb Hawley.

O'Keefe said cancer took him by surprise

Will serve as one of the honorary Relay For Life chairman June 25-26

Pat O'Keefe doesn't look like a man who has battled cancer- twice- in the past two years but that's the story he will tell when he opens the 11th annual Hudson Relay For Life on June 25.

In March 2008, when O'Keefe was just 48, he went to see his doctor for physical. He remembers "feeling a little off" but nothing turned up. Since he was under the age of 50, the recommended age to get a PSA test that can signal prostate cancer, the test wasn't ordered.

"But a few days later when I was watching the news on Channel 4, I heard them list the symptoms of prostate cancer. I had three out of the four and I remember thinking 'I have that.' I went back to the doctor, he did the PSA and there it was," said Pat.

O'Keefe was treated at Hudson Physicians and Hudson Hospital. He says his doctor, Dr. Mark Druffner, and urologist Dr. Todd Brandt did a wonderful job. He says he understands that his age and lack of any family history of the cancer were why the test wasn't run initially. "I'm just glad I was watching television that afternoon."

O'Keefe underwent surgery to remove his prostate and he said he recovered pretty quickly from the operation. But his follow up treatment was another story. He underwent radiation treatments, five days a week for close for eight weeks and experienced most, if not all, of the side effects that sometimes result.

"I thought I would breeze right through it but that was tough. The fatigue was the worst. By the end of it I was both mentally and physically worn out. It was a great day when the radiation was done," said Pat.

He said he now gets what women experience. He now takes hormones and says he experiences his own hot flashes. At one point during the treatment he had pains that he can only imagine were as bad as contractions. "And at one exam I even had my feet in stirrups. Believe me, I get it."

O'Keefe, who works for the City of Hudson, got a second blow last December when the cancer returned, this in the shape of two tumors on his ribs. At his original diagnosis, he was told his type of cancer was aggressive, something that is common when it appears in younger men.

This time, he went to Mayo Clinic to be treated by a doctor who specializes in recurring prostate cancer. The treatment was radiation again but this time it came in the form of a new treatment, a one-shot massive dose of radiation administered by a laser directly at the tumors. Fortunately there were no side effects with the new treatment. These days he returns to the clinic once a month to be checked and his prognosis is good.

Pat and his wife Deb are lifelong Hudson residents and have three grown children, Derek, Samantha and Brady. Pat said when he got the call that he had cancer, he felt like he had been hit in the stomach. "It takes the wind out of you. I remember thinking what do I do now. I don't have any experience with something like this. It really throws you."

But once the initial shock was over, the couple set about learning as much as they could about prostate cancer. They prioritized and decided to be open and honest with their family and friends.

"We knew it would be hard for the kids, especially for Brady (who lives in Alaska) and Samantha (who lives in New York City) but we knew we had to be honest with them and with the rest of our family and friends," said Deb. "We knew this was serious and we couldn't kid ourselves about that."

Pat said in some ways it is harder for the caregivers in a cancer patient's life than for the patient. "As the patient you just get focused on what you have to do--go to the appointments, do the treatment, take a nap...That was the good part," he jokes. "But for her it was harder."

Deb agreed. "At one point I became aware of feeling like I just had this enormous weight on my chest. That I couldn't breathe but I got through that. I did like he did - tried to focus on what needed to be done."

The O'Keefes said their children each had their own way of handling the news as the reality of their dad's condition set in but they have never regretted being honest about what was going on. "The truth is I needed their support to get through it."

Along with their children, the O'Keefes, who both have large extended families and a lifetime of friends in the area, got plenty of support and positive energy sent their way. "Everyone was so great. There would be a hundred people there on a moment's notice if we needed them. That's pretty amazing," said Deb.

Pat says life has changed since cancer. He says he now likes to "keep it simple and not sweat the small stuff." He and Deb have prioritized and time with family and friends is at the top of the list. "You can't help but think about what happens if this thing gets me but because of it, I've learned what's really important and what great family and friends I have." He also says that a sense of humor, before, during and after his diagnosis, is essential to getting through whatever life brings.

The O'Keefes hope that by telling their story to as large an audience as possible, that it will focus more attention on prostate cancer. Pat thinks men could learn from what women have accomplished when it comes to breast cancer awareness and research.

"We need to do the same kind of thing with this cancer. Men need to overcome their fears and embarrassment about seeing a doctor and getting an exam. And they need to keep asking if they don't get answers. That second opinion is so important," said Pat. "Catch it early and this thing can be treated."

At the 2008 Relay For Life, Pat was still recovering from his initial surgery. Deb was out of town but suggested he go to the event anyway. He didn't know much about what went on and found himself taking the traditional survivors lap all by himself.

This year will be different and as he has learned since then, a cancer survivor is never alone.

O'Keefe is serving as one of the honorary co-chairmen of the 2010 Hudson Relay For Life. He will speak at the June 25 opening ceremony beginning at 6 p.m. More details about the event appear on this page in a related story.

In the print edition of this story Pat was identified as his brother Mike in a photo. The Star-Observer regrets this error.

Meg Heaton

Meg Heaton has been a reporter with the Hudson Star Observer since 1990. She has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Native American Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

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