O'Connell did not feel sick when he went to see his doctor in February of 2009. It was just a regular check-up.
That examination included a chest X-ray, which probably saved his life. O'Connell had cancer in his lungs.
"I was fortunate," O'Connell said. "I didn't have any symptoms. It was a routine check-up for work. After I walked out of the guy's office, before I started my drive home, my outlook was, 'Let's go. Do what we have to do to beat this thing."
The first part of that was finding the cancer early, which gives the patient a much better chance to survive. That is why O'Connell says he sent out hundreds of emails to tell people about his diagnosis, so they would know that a check-up could save a life.
"My early detection was a savior for me," O'Connell said. "My whole thing is hyper-awareness. It could be something as simple as an annual physical with your doctor that could save your life.
"When I found out, I didn't hide it. I sent emails around. Who knows what would have happened if I had not had a check-up. Do yourselves a favor and get a physical."
That is a big part of the 57-year-old Pearl River resident's motivation for taking part in this year's Orangetown Relay for Life. The Relay for Life is a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society, but also a community event honoring those whose lives have been touched by cancer. The Orangetown Relay for Life begins 7 p.m. Friday and ends at 7 a.m. Saturday on the Central Ave. Field in Pearl River. For more information or to register online, go to to www.relayforlife.org/orangetownny. Gates open for registration and for teams to set up for the evening at 5 p.m.
As of Thursday afternoon, O'Connell was the top individual fundraiser for the event with $1,740, teaming with his wife Eileen and daughter Maeve.
"Just a few events lately made me think this was something I wanted to do," O'Connell said. "My wife and daughter and I got involved. Our community seems to have been stricken by cancer a lot."
O'Connell also inspired long-time friend Mike O'Malley of Pearl River to take on a larger role this year. With Pearl River Little League President Joanie Bourke chairing the Orangetown Relay for Life this year, O'Malley organized a group for Pearl River Little League, which is the top fundraising team so far.
"Noel is a great guy, someone who I have known for over 40 years, from our years in the Bronx," O'Malley wrote via e-mail. "I will let Noel share his story with you, but his battle with cancer several years ago is one of many reasons I wanted to help lead the PRLL effort for this great event."
Within a week of his initial diagnosis, O'Connell met with a specialist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. He had surgery in March, during which the doctors discovered that the cancer had begun in his thyroid gland and moved into his lungs. He had a separate procedure to remove the thyroid gland that May.
"I've had treatment since and I'm still going through it, but things are going well," O'Connell said.
O'Connell also lost his brother, Bart O'Connell, to cancer in 1996 and has had friends suffer from the disease as well.
"We all have similar stories," O'Connell said.