Higher Calling

Higher Calling

A Cancer Diagnosis helped Dolly O’Neal find her Passion in Fundraising Efforts to Assist Others with the Afflicted Disease.

Crossroads salutes Dolly O’Neal, Director of Development for the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center. Since joining the Center in 2002, Mrs. O’Neal has worked closely with administration, faculty and staff to educate people about the innovative research and compassionate patient care at the Center. As a member of the Community Affairs Office, she works with the UAB Development Office to obtain philanthropic gifts for the Center. A graduate of the University of Alabama, Mrs. O’Neal and her husband Bert have three children: Bert, 25, offensive coordinator for the Washington & Lee University Generals in Lexington, Virginia; Camper, 23, a financial advisor for Merrill Lynch; and Amy, 19, a sophomore at Auburn University.

The name “Dolly” is quite appropriate for Cancer Center Development Director Dolly O’Neal because it describes her perfectly. As one coworker describes her: “She is so energetic and enthusiastic, and she always has a smile on her face. She’s just a perfect ‘Dolly.’”

A resident of Mountain Brook, Mrs. O’Neal joined the Cancer Center in 2002 as its first full-time employee devoted entirely to fundraising and development. Her association with the Cancer Center, however, goes back 10 years – to when she herself was a cancer patient.

A Cancer Diagnosis

In 1994, a self-exam found a small lump in Mrs. O’Neal’s right breast. At first, the experience was a bit overwhelming. “When you’re diagnosed with cancer, you don’t have any control over it,” she says. “You just have to fight through it and hope your treatment turns out positive.”

One of the first steps Mrs. O’Neal took was calling her friend Ann Hayes, whose husband Jim had been treated for cancer and was a member of the Cancer Center Supporters Board at the time. “I asked, ‘What should I do?’” she recalls. “And Jim began to tell me about the Cancer Center at UAB, and he said there was no other place he would even consider going. He was the one who told me about it being a comprehensive center and what that meant.”

After talking to Mr. Hayes, Mrs. O’Neal was at the Cancer Center the next day to see Albert LoBuglio, M.D, who was Center Director at the time. Mrs. O’Neal was actually one of the first patients to be seen in the Center’s new breast cancer interdisciplinary clinic, which utilizes a team approach of various cancer specialists to design individualized treatment plans tailored to each patient. Because she had no family history of breast cancer, her doctors decided not to administer any chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Instead she had a lumpectomy, performed by Cancer Center Senior Scientist Marshall Urist, M.D., followed by a single mastectomy with reconstruction under the care of UAB plastic surgeon Luis Vasconez, M.D. “I was lucky because I didn’t need chemotherapy for the type of cancer I had,” she says. “Chemotherapy would have made matters worse for me, and my doctors knew that.”

Giving Back to the Cancer Center

A year and a half after receiving the “all clear” from her physicians, Mrs. O’Neal decided she wanted to do something to give back to the Cancer Center. “I wanted to make something positive out of my experience,” she says. So she began looking for ways to raise money, which led to a fortuitous meeting with Bruce Sokol, whose wife was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Together, they established the Breast Cancer Research Foundation of Alabama, which raises money for the Cancer Center.

After six years of working solely with the Foundation, a chance for Mrs. O’Neal to expand her fundraising capabilities arose when Cancer Center Executive Administrator Larry Williams, M.B.A., asked her to join the Center as its full-time development director. “It was one of those opportunities in life that are just dropped in your lap,” she says. “I was scared to say yes, but I didn’t want to say no.”

Mrs. O’Neal agreed to accept the position for a “trial” period of one year. Four years later, she is still going strong. “I have a passion for helping the Cancer Center in its fundraising to advance technology and treatments,” she says. “I found my passion, and I didn’t know what it was until I had cancer. Because of that, cancer made me a better person.”

During her time as development director, Mrs. O’Neal has made great efforts to establish and cultivate relationships with local groups and organizations. Part of those relationships is educating people about the work being done at the Cancer Center and what it has to offer. “I’m so proud of the work that takes place here, and I want to spread that word,” she says. Thanks to Mrs. O’Neal, the Cancer Center is the recipient of funds from many local groups and businesses, including the Greater Birmingham Association of Home Builders, the Birmingham Quilters Guild, Parisian and Saks Fifth Avenue.

But it is those individual cancer survivors and family members who are most important to Mrs. O’Neal. “I see my job as helping people find a way to give back. Cancer patients and survivors are so appreciative because of what they have been through. It’s amazing to me how willing they are to help others,” she says. Those patients who are undergoing treatment yet still find time to volunteer and help others inspire Mrs. O’Neal. She cites her friend Ethel Feigelson as a perfect example of this. Mrs. Feigelson was an active volunteer for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation even while undergoing treatment for breast cancer herself. Though she lost her battle with cancer in 2003, Mrs. Feigelson is still helping cancer patients through the Ethel Feigelson Patient Assistance Fund, which Mrs. O’Neal helped to establish.

“Dolly is a wonderful and inspiring presence here in the Cancer Center,” says Peter Emanuel, M.D., Cancer Center Acting Director. “She has done so much to expand our presence in the community. The passion that she brings to her job is amazing.”

Future Developments

As Mrs. O’Neal enters her fifth year as development director, she will also be entering into her biggest fundraising task to date. This fall, the Cancer Center launches a $15-million fundraising effort for its new radiation oncology facility. This freestanding, state-of-the-art facility will house the entire UAB Department of Radiation Oncology, which is currently housed in the Wallace Tumor Institute.

“The radiation oncology department has simply outgrown its current space,” Mrs. O’Neal says. “As more patients are being seen, it is vital that we have a large, technology advanced facility to meet patients’ needs.”

This project is a joint effort between the Cancer Center and the UAB Development Office. The effort will run through the summer of 2007. “It’s a little overwhelming to think about what a large amount we need to raise,” she says. “But when you believe what you’re raising money for, and you know it’s going to improve patients’ lives, it’s not so overwhelming.”

Along with the radiation oncology effort, Mrs. O’Neal will continue with her other projects. She is currently raising money for an endowed chair in honor of Dr. LoBuglio, who stepped down as Center director in 2004, but still serves as a faculty member. She also still serves as president of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. A former flight attendant for Delta Airlines, she and her husband Bert are avid travelers and enjoy spending time with their children at their condominium in Point Clear. Mrs. O’Neal also enjoys being with her other three “children,” her labradors Honey and Georgia and her Corgi, Wags the Dog.

When asked what keeps her going, Mrs. O’Neal’s answer is simple: “I believe in the Cancer Center, I believe in the doctors, and I believe that they are making progress in fighting this disease.”