A tribute to Alice Sturgis O’Neill
By Roberta Cannon
If we are very lucky, we will meet that one person along our life’s journey who just falls into step with us, accepts us for who we are, is open to sharing their caring and compassion for others, all the while doing it with dignity and grace.
That was Alice Sturgis O’Neill of Osterville, who died on Oct. 26 at the age of 87.
I first met Alice in the summer of 2016 at the Livestrong Program offered by the YMCA Cape Cod. Nine cancer survivors, including myself, sat around a conference room table on the first day and took turns introducing ourselves. When it was Alice’s turn to talk about herself, she spoke with elegance, an uplifting voice and a sense of humor. Her smile lit up the room and she brought a calming presence, along with reassurance that our nerves would in fact dissipate and it was going to be an adventure.
The nine of us became like family over the 12-week course that included group conversations, learning how to use gym equipment, exercises in the pool, chair yoga, Zumba, and other instructional programs.
When I wrote the story about my experience with the Livestrong program for Cape Cod Health News in 2016, Alice said, “I have become fond of everyone in the group. We all looked forward to coming each week and it provided an opportunity to share things that you can’t share with a lot of other people.”
Over the past five years, I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Alice for three more stories. She invited me to her home for the interview for the first story and, while I went with the intention of doing an interview, I came away having had delightful conversations and hearing stories about her late husband and the rest of her close-knit family. She expressed so much caring and pride for all of them.
She made me feel like a member of her family, too.
A Long History With Cape Cod Hospital
The last time we spoke was December 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. I did a phone interview with her for a story in celebration of the 100-year anniversary of Cape Cod Hospital. Alice and her six siblings were born at the hospital, and she reminisced about her years of connection through volunteering. She began volunteering in the hospital coffee shop when she was in high school.
“Whenever I could do anything at the hospital, I loved it, no matter what it was,” said Alice at that time. “I loved that atmosphere, and, to this day, I love to go to the hospital. There is something about the people. I love people and that’s what keeps me going - just being needed, trying to help others.”
She has been on the organizing committee for the annual local cancer fundraiser for 19 years. The event was first started by the American Cancer Society and is now run by a group of eight dedicated volunteers, affectionately known as the “Mighty Eight,” who organize Soirée on the Bay, an annual fundraiser for Cape Cod Healthcare Cancer Services.
Alice’s connection to the hospital Cancer Services division was very personal. She and many of her family members were treated for cancer at Cape Cod Hospital, including her late husband, Ed O’Neill, who lived with cancer for more than 12 years.
Her deep understanding of the toll cancer can take on survivors, family members and caregivers is what made her so special to all who met her, either through fundraising or her support of cancer services.
Transition to a New Venture
The first Soiree On the Bay event was held three years ago, when Alice was instrumental, along with the Mighty Eight, in creating the new venture working directly with Cape Cod Hospital to support local cancer patients.
“Alice was the heart of our committee and our honorary chair,” said Sharon Kennedy, a member of the Soiree On the Bay committee. “She led with her gentle, respectful guidance that we all really wanted to emulate, which is why we got along so well, and we were able to be productive.”
Barbara Dunn, another committee member, said that the transition from raising funds for the American Cancer Society to Cape Cod Healthcare Cancer Services was made easier because of Alice.
“Alice was so passionate about the mission of supporting cancer patients. It didn’t really matter who or what it was about, it only mattered to help cancer patients,” she said. “We accomplished what Alice and all of us wanted, which was to help people in our community, and our partnership with Cape Cod Healthcare allowed this to happen.”
Cape Cod Healthcare President and CEO Michael Lauf called Alice “a bright light” who cared deeply about Cape Cod Hospital, the staff and patients.
”Alice touched all of us in very significant ways,” he said. “She worked so hard to educate people about cancer and the impact it has on the person and their family, and she was always willing to listen and to help.
“What separated Alice from most is she just didn’t talk about it – she acted. She helped to create programs to improve the care we provide at Cape Cod Healthcare as well as the outcomes achieved by our patients.
“All of us who knew her are better for it,” Lauf continued. “She will always be missed and her legacy of improving cancer services and treatment on the Cape will forever be present.”
The Bond of Friends
Alice’s friendship made the committee members feel like family and created a love that bonded them all as friends. Kennedy, Dunn and fellow committee member Melissa Marchand described Alice as being beautiful inside and out, as well as genuine, passionate, compassionate, humble, warm, and having a great sense of humor.
They are grateful that she was able to see the creation of Alice’s Classroom at Cape Cod Hospital in 2019, which was dedicated to her many years of work to support cancer patients. The virtual classroom, that will be a part of the new Cancer Center at Cape Cod Hospital, provides education for cancer patients and caregivers.
“We are so glad she was able to see it while she was healthy and well,” said Marchand. “It means so much, especially now.”
Alice’s legacy of helping cancer patients will carry on through the Soirée on the Bay celebration. The fundraiser was virtual this year, due to the pandemic, and the goal to help approximately 205 cancer patients with the money donated far surpassed expectations. As of today, the event raised enough money to help 745 patients - over 55 percent of Cape Codders diagnosed with cancer each year - on their cancer journey, said Kennedy.
“We will keep Alice’s spirit alive as a part of our committee,” said Marchand. “She was such a loving, supportive person. She could sense what people emotionally needed from her and was able to provide that. You could trust her to always be there for you and everyone in the community. She loved life, was so full of joy - and, oh, how she loved to dance.”