Jerry O’Neill Sails to Good Fortune

Categories: Winter 2018
Jerry O’Neill has a lot to celebrate this year: moving past the three-year mark since his prostate cancer diagnosis, his 57th wedding anniversary, and winning a sailing race from Chicago to Macinac Island.


Jerry O’Neill’s PSA had been low for a long time, but in 2015 it began to rise above 4. He was 77 years old, and his doctor recommended he have an MRI scan. That scan revealed prostate cancer. Jerry credits the PSA test for finding the disease while he could still fight it. “The thing about [prostate cancer] is that you don’t feel it. If it hadn’t been for this PSA test, I wouldn’t have known,” he said. “I owe a lot to the guys that did the research to come up with how to figure out if you’ve got a problem.”

Jerry O’Neill’s racing crew now includes three generations of his family. Their team won the Race to Macinac this summer on his sailboat, the Eagle.

Jerry’s diagnosis of prostate cancer wasn’t the first in his family. His son, Shawn, had already undergone treatment for prostate cancer a few years earlier. Thus, when Jerry received his diagnosis, he turned to his son for help in exploring treatment options. “My son had done a lot of research and he was helping guide me,” Jerry said.

Jerry decided to undergo a combination of early chemotherapy and hormonal therapy. This treatment for advanced prostate cancer had been piloted by the CHAARTED trial, with early results published in 2015 showing a significant improvement in survival and disease progression. Jerry said, “I’m very lucky to have come on the scene when other people have had the problem, and a lot of work had been done to find solutions.”

Jerry’s initial treatment plan was to have six chemotherapy treatments, each approximately 3 to 4 weeks apart, along with hormonal shots every 3 months. However, his PSA was down to almost 0 after just four chemotherapy sessions. While Jerry’s side effects had been minimal, his treatment team decided it was unnecessary to continue the chemotherapy. Although he’d started his treatment at the University of Chicago, Jerry decided to start seeing Dr. Catalona for his continued hormonal treatment after a friend gave him a high recommendation. “He’s a real nice guy and I respect him,” Jerry said of Dr. Catalona.

Sailing remains an important part of Jerry’s life after facing prostate cancer. He keeps his boat at a harbor in Chicago

Thankfully, Jerry’s health continues to do well and his PSA has remained at 0. “I’m a happy camper from that standpoint,” he said.

Not slowing down

Today, Jerry leads a busy life. His career in insurance is still going strong. “I’m feeling 100%. Things are great and that why I’m still actively working as a State Farm agent,” he said. He’s been an insurance agent since 1962, and still runs his business out of the same office he started in on the north side of Chicago. He appreciates the creative thinking required for the job. He said, “You never know from day to day exactly what is going to occur. Mentally, you’ve got to be on top of it.” He also recognizes the valuable role he plays in helping his clients. “A lot of time you get serious problem, where people have need of your help,” he said.

His family is important to him. Jerry’s son is also a State Farm agent. They work in the same office space. Jerry and his wife, Lucille, recently celebrated their 57th wedding anniversary. They enjoy traveling together, especially when escaping Chicago winters and going to warm destinations, such as Hawaii. They’ve also been to Alaska, Ireland, and the Caribbean. “We’ve been to a lot of different places,” he said of their adventures. “As long as I feel good, I’d rather wear out than rust out. My philosophy is this,” he said.

Time on the open water

Jerry has a true passion for sailing. In 1968, he bought his first sailboat from a customer who happened to be a sailmaker. “I loved it,” he said of his early sailing days. A few years later, he bought a 30-foot sailboat that was eligible for the Race to Macinac, a 330-mile sailing race through Lake Michigan from Chicago to Macinac Island. The race can take days to finish, depending on the wind and water conditions. That first year, Jerry and his sailing crew won the race by just 6 seconds.

Jerry and his wife, Lucille, recently celebrated their 57th wedding anniversary.

Jerry’s drawn to the competitive spirit of the race. “It’s really like a giant chess game on the water. There’s a lot of strategy involved,” he said. He’s been in every Race to Macinac since 1972, and he’s won the race more than a dozen times—including this past summer. “I’ve been fortunate to have a good crew, a good boat. That’s what works,” he said. The appeal of sailing also stems the relationships it fosters. “Sailing has been part of keeping people together, and I’ve wound up with friendships for life,” he said. He noted that his son, Shawn, is part of his sailing crew. “Also, we now have a third generation as part of the Eagle team. Connor, age 20, Shawn’s son, and my grandson, was an important part of our first place in this year’s Mac race,” he said. “It’s a good family effort.”

Once fall came to Chicago, Jerry moved his boat to storage for the winter. “It’s a sad time of year, in the sense that I don’t get to do the thing I love to do,” he said. “But it builds excitement for the next year,” he said enthusiastically.


Photos courtesy of Jerry O’Neill

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