Three years ago, Kaytie O'Hara received what was thought to be dream-shattering news.
A routine checkup at the dentist to examine a small bump on her gum changed her life. O'Hara, a singer and performer, was diagnosed at the age of 37 with a very rare case of bone cancer in the jaw called osteogenic sarcoma of the maxilla.
O'Hara had her first surgery at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital a month after the discovery. The surgery required amputating part of her jaw where the tumor was located and replacing it with a denture-like obturator. Further test results revealed she would need chemotherapy and another surgical procedure. O'Hara battled through a difficult four-month period of treatment following the second operation but the outlook appeared positive. After living with her family in Philadelphia for nine months, she moved back to New York to continue her career as an artist.
On Thanksgiving Day in 2015, things took an all too familiar unsettling turn. O'Hara returned home to be with her family for the holiday but her heart sank when she removed her mouthpiece to brush her teeth.
She spotted another bump on her gum.
That very moment, she knew cancer had returned despite only a 10 percent chance of it resurfacing. Two weeks later, O'Hara endured a 10-hour surgery that removed her entire jaw and replaced it with bone from her fibula. The operation left O'Hara with a facial deformity, a state of confusion, and heartache.
In total, O'Hara has undergone seven surgeries and six cycles of chemotherapy. More impressively, she continues to pursue her love of singing and uses her story of perseverance to inspire others. On Sunday's game against the Cardinals, O'Hara will sing the national anthem in front of nearly 70,000 fans at Lincoln Financial Field.
"I just kind of always knew that I would be able to sing and that I would be able to affect people using my voice," O'Hara said. "It's always been my passion. It's always been the thing that really brought the most joy and I really wanted to give a go at making a living doing it."
Growing up, O'Hara sang in choirs in both high school and her church. She continued to perform in college at Penn State and eventually took her talents to San Francisco. She studied at the American Conservatory Theatre and worked at a Global Peace Conference in Indonesia with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu. O'Hara continued to chase her dream as a performer in New York City. When cancer arrived it placed a temporary halt to her career. But because of her family, she continues to perform today.
"They were right next to me the whole time," O'Hara said. "I moved back to Philly so I could have my treatment at Penn and be home with family. I have a huge Irish-Catholic family. I was really surrounded by my parents, siblings, and cousins. They've all been around and so present for me it's been unbelievable. I'm super lucky."
O'Hara never allowed the battle to interfere with her art. She performs frequently at Carnegie Hall with the choir from the New York Pops. She sang the national anthem for the Coaches vs. Cancer, Penn State vs. Illinois game in January. O'Hara was invited to the Concert For America in April to perform and speak about her experience with health care.
"I talk about trying to find the gem amidst the rubble of illness and of cancer. There are some beautiful things to take away from it if you find the strength in yourself to look at it that way," O'Hara said. "I really do believe so much of it is attitude. There are some real big blessings in the whole thing. I've been so deeply moved by the outpouring of support that I've had on days when I just didn't feel like getting up or I didn't feel like facing the world. I found so much gratitude in myself for the people around me. And I was surprised by my own strength.
"It's kind of like a game. It's like a mental preparation of how you're going to get through it and strategically get the support around you that you need, and I, fortunately, have that and a lot of people don't have that."
O'Hara's performance prior to Sunday's game provides her another opportunity to raise awareness regarding some of the seldom-discussed adversities of cancer patients. Specifically, she aims to call attention to the financial strains outside of surgeries and treatments. O'Hara and her family drove 9,000 miles in three years to and from doctor appointments which meant uncovered expenses such as gas, tolls, and parking fees. O'Hara is also concerned about the lack of attention for the mental health of cancer patients during the healing process. It's something she deems a necessity in supporting a patient's recovery.
"Having a good attitude really plays a role in your healing. A lot of insurance doesn't cover mental health and if we're not supporting someone's mental health while they're trying to physically recover, then we're not supporting the whole person. It kind of defeats the purpose," she said.
O'Hara's tremendous journey reaches a milestone on Sunday. A native of the Philadelphia suburbs, O'Hara grew up an Eagles fan. Her story is an inspiration to others battling cancer and to perform in front of the fans where she grew up is an opportunity she'll forever cherish.
"It just feels so special. I have so many people coming this weekend and it's really such an incredible opportunity to bring awareness to head and neck cancer because unfortunately there are a million people with breast cancer, so there's a month and a color and a ribbon but head and neck cancers don't have that," O'Hara said. "To raise awareness on their behalf, that's a huge gift for me."