He’s a bundle of goodwill, a man energized by his struggle with pancreatic cancer. Joe Killeen lives on with the vigor and strength to try to beat the deadly disease.
He lives through his job as an athletic trainer at Bethpage High School. He lives for the student-athletes. And he is driven to fight the fight and take the cancer head on.
Killeen, 59, is the embodiment of spirit and belief in positivity.
"If you allow the fear of the disease to paralyze you, then you stop living," he said. "I have everything to live for. And I know I’m not alone in this battle. I know there is so much support from my family, friends and the Bethpage community."
Killeen was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in April 2020. A sudden drop in weight was cause for concern.
"I’m an otherwise very healthy guy with a good diet and an exercise regimen," he said. "I check my weight every day and I thought something was wrong, so I had it checked out."
Killeen went to his internist and immediately was sent for a computed tomography scan, which revealed a tumor. It was recommended that he go to Memorial Sloan Kettering in Manhattan.
The news was sobering. The cancer was advanced enough that treatments were to begin immediately at the Kettering cancer center under the care of Dr. Eileen O’Reilly.
"My father died from pancreatic cancer," Killeen said. "I know there is a family history. He was diagnosed 11 years ago in stage four and only survived two years. I’ve always been proactive in my health."
Killeen found early on that as folks in the Bethpage community learned of his fight, they rallied around him. And the outpouring of support has lifted his spirits.
Five of the high school’s athletic teams have raised more than $10,000 in donations made in his name to cancer research.
"I’ve never really met a man quite like Joe," said John Franchi, the director of athletics at Bethpage High School. "He’s the guy that will do anything for anybody, always helping others. While he goes through the chemotherapy treatments, he’s finding a way to be at school to take care of our athletes. Our students know he’s the go-to guy in the district. They lean on him for advice. They trust him. They know he cares about them. They wanted to get together and give something back for him."
Senior Ashlynn McGrorty, the captain of the Bethpage girls soccer team, wrote a speech to read to Killeen after the squad raised money in his name toward pancreatic research.
"I tore my ACL during my sophomore year and I spent a lot of time with him after school," said McGrorty, who plans to play at Cortland State. "He was always checking up on my recovery to make sure I was hitting my milestones. He energizes people, he’s just a bright light. And when we presented, Joe was so connected and grateful that it felt more special."
Killeen endured six months of chemotherapy beginning in April 2020. He returned to work at Bethpage while completing treatment in the fall of 2020 and went into remission in January.
"I was incredibly grateful to hear those words, ‘in remission,’ " Killeen said. "I’ve heard people say it’s a death sentence, but never to me. All I hear is, ‘I know you’re strong enough and you’ll get through this.’ "
He was advised that the cancer became active again in early June, immediately began receiving treatment and continued to work.
This November, Killeen’s son, Will, 24, ran the New York City Marathon for Fred’s Team (the Memorial Sloan Kettering fundraising team) to raise funds for pancreatic cancer research at the MSK cancer center. Will Killeen raised $17,600, and $4,040 of that total came from fundraisers put on by Bethpage athletic teams, including varsity and junior varsity football, varsity cheerleading and girls soccer. Many Bethpage families and former athletes also donated to Will’s fundraising efforts.
"My son was a three-sport athlete in high school and played lacrosse at [Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute]," Joe said. "When I was diagnosed, Will took it upon himself to raise money for pancreatic research. It’s amazing what people can do when motivated. I’m so proud of him. He never ran three miles at once in his life and now he ran 26.2 miles."
Joe Killeen was an avid runner in high school. He graduated from West Islip in 1980 and went on to run at Division III Lynchburg College in Virginia. He earned All-American honors in the 400-meter hurdles in 1985.
It warmed his heart that his son trained for and ran the marathon. Joe traveled around the city to get to different locations on the course to cheer him on.
The entire Killeen family has embraced this battle. His daughter, Caroline, 26, who lives in South Windsor, Connecticut, came down to drive him to the oncologist or to treatments in Commack to give his wife, Janet, a break.
"My wife of 32 years is the real rock here," Joe said. "She’s never negative, always positive. If there’s ever bad news, she’s like, ‘let’s find a solution.’ "
The Bethpage varsity kickline team dedicated a routine titled "Rise Up" that made Killeen cry. The team earned a third-place finish in a virtual National Dance Alliance competition.
"He watched the routine and it made him cry because he loved it so much," senior Casey Trzcinski said. "Joe is always there for us. Through everything he’s going through, he’s still at every practice making sure everyone is OK. He puts his own difficulties aside and takes care of others."
In the fall and spring seasons, Killeen can be found driving his golf cart from field to field at Bethpage every afternoon. In the winter, he works the gym areas to tape and stretch the athletes and to mentor students in all sports.
"He is so pivotal to the health and well-being of our players all year round," said senior Giuliana Lavacca, who plays girls soccer and softball. "He zooms around on his own little golf cart from one sport to another and doesn’t hang out at one sport. He goes to all sports equally."
Killeen has spoken with people who are suffering from or who have family members dealing with cancer.
"I believe the best help I can give is to listen to people share their stories about cancer and share my own experiences with the disease," he said. "There’s comfort in familiarity. And there is fear in the unknown. It can be terrifying. You can’t give up. You must keep moving forward and live your life.
"I never expected to be in this situation and am amazed and touched by the outpouring of concern, kindness and encouragement. I feel blessed to have a wide network of family members, friends, patients, students, coaches, faculty members and former athletes supporting me during my journey.
"Recently, two Bethpage athletes shared personal stories about losing siblings to cancer when they were younger. I feel very privileged that they shared their stories with me to make me feel better about my situation."
Killeen’s kindness is noted in everything he does. He has volunteered for 20-plus years at the Empire Challenge, which pits football seniors from New York City against Long Island to raise money for cystic fibrosis.
"He goes the extra mile for all the players," said Pete Blieberg, the game coordinator. "Joe follows up after the game with them because he truly cares about the kids."
Franchi remembers a football game about eight years ago.
"We’re playing Roosevelt and a player on their team gets hurt," he said. "And there’s Joe sprinting across the field to aid the young player. We resume the game and I’m looking for Joe and he’s comforting the kid on their sideline waiting for the ambulance. They didn’t have a trainer at Roosevelt, so Joe jumped in to help. Just Joe being Joe."
One time, an older reporter, struggling during an especially hot afternoon at a Bethpage football game, looked dehydrated. Concerned, Killeen grabbed two cups of water and brought them over.
"You need this," he told me. "Keep drinking, hydrate."
It was Joe being Joe, taking care of everyone.