On a blistering day in June my dad made the offhanded comment that still haunted me for five years: “you should get that mole on your back checked out, it could be dangerous.” I was young, naïve, and scared so I didn’t know what to do and didn’t want to actually believe there was anything wrong with me. I thought I was lucky at the time, since my dad was traveling air force and, other than my breaks from school, I spent the time with my mom who hadn’t yet seen the deformed lump on my back. As I boarded the plane back to California my dad issued me the warning once more-go to the doctor’s, get that thing checked out- and then I left all thoughts of lumpy moles in Nebraska.
It was something that I forced on to the back burner of my brain. I didn’t want to think about cancer because I honestly didn’t know how I would be able to handle the news; I didn’t want to face my parents reaction that their baby girl is slowly dying, or tell my best friends that I would probably be losing all of my hair due to chemotherapy. At that age (I was only 14) it just something that my brain could not process. It conflicted with all of my plans for life- a career, a husband, a family- and the thought of dying of cancer scared me to the bone so I didn’t want to deal with it. So, being the intelligent 14 year old girl that I was, I made up excuses.
It was relatively easy to come up with reasons as to why I shouldn’t tell my doctor about my mole and they all centered on “bad timing.” I was either going to be performing in a show, moving up to high school, volunteering at an animal shelter, or I wanted to clean my room first. I would honestly come up with the most pathetic excuses for myself, all just to stay away from the doctor and any possible grim prognosis he might condemn me with. There were moments where I was almost found out, such as when I had to get a physical to run track. I nearly quite running all together just to get out of getting that close to a doctor, and when I did manage to get into the office I had a nervous breakdown when asked to change into the patients robe because it revealed my back. I remember how I kept repeating to myself over and over again, “I’m not ready. I can’t do this yet, I’m not strong enough and I’m just not ready.” I thought that I lucked out for sure when the doctor didn’t actually go near the mole in his inspection, so it was just another sign that I was in the clear and it wasn’t meant for my secret to be exposed just yet.
Nonetheless, it was something that constantly haunted my brain. Even though I had posted it on a back burner it still managed to creep up when I least expected it and invade my brain, ruining any coherent thought processes for the remainder of the day. Excuses abounding, I managed to get through all four years of high school without another word from my parents (who had seemingly forgotten about the entire thing) and managed through all doctor’s visits scot-free. I was breathing a sigh of relief that was never fully satisfactory since I knew the idea of cancer still encumbered my brain.
Then came college, and everything changed for me. My new-found friends and I began to open up to one another about all of the secrets of our lives- secrets we never told anyone- as a way of bonding closer. I tried to conceal my secret since I knew that if it got out, they would make me go to the doctor and get it confirmed just as my parents wanted. I held off as long as possible, however the night came during one of our conversations when I simply couldn’t hold it in any longer. My secret came out, along with many tears and hiccups, and I sat there staring as my friends tried to process the information: “I think I have skin cancer.” After a moment of silence and awe the questions came flooding in: “Are you sure?” “How do you know?” “Have you seen a doctor?” Are you scared?” I told them I had researched the disease and was almost positive since I had all the symptoms such as discolored, disfigured, growing mole and fatigue. I hadn’t seen a doctor yet because, as I put it, I hadn’t yet had the chance. And yes, I was very scared. By the end of the conversation I was face stained, shaking, and exhausted and didn’t want to let go of my friends’ hands. They had convinced me to make an appointment with a doctor and would watch me to make sure I did- they even suggested they go with me to the appointment, all five of them, for moral support.
The week that followed was pure hell that seemed to drag on with no end in sight. I couldn’t concentrate on anything and every little detail reminded me of my upcoming meeting. When I finally walked into the school health center and signed in it immediately felt as though the pressure in the room tripled and I could hardly breathe. Despite my best attempts at persuading my friends, we stayed until the doctor called my name and I walked into the patient’s room alone.
The rest of the story was nothing but a blur. Talking, crying, the inspection and sharp breathe in by the doctor, and hesitation in his voice, it all echoed around me and reverberated off the walls making it exceptionally difficult to stay upright. They took a small sample and extracted as much of the mole as they could, and sent me off with the wait time of three weeks until the test results would be back in. After that it was nothing more than a waiting game, but at least I knew it was over for the time being, and no longer in my hands.
That was just one year ago. If I had known or taken the time to research my condition more thoroughly things would have been different- I wouldn’t have been scared, confused, and angry at myself all the time. Instead of just scratching the surface of melanoma, I could have looked up possible treatments other than radiation so I wouldn’t have to worry about becoming a weak vegetable for my parents to look after. I could have developed a deeper understanding of incubation time, done more extensive review on symptoms, and developed my own theory rather than sitting anxiously in the dark for someone to find me and drag me out. By utilizing websites that are specific to my potential condition, I could have developed an understanding of the thing- what it is, what it does, and most importantly, how to fight it. Such websites have helped probably hundreds of thousands of people in the exact same situation as mine, and could continue saving hundreds of thousands more lives.
As Rhio O’Connor fought his disease with information, so should I. Information isn’t knowledge, though; it is also awareness and understanding. Rhio O’Connor became learned enough to outlive his disease, through extensive research with such sites as www.survivingmesothelioma.com, he fought back and won. He gathered material, asked questions, and never gave up. He “thought outside the box” of the traditional cancer patient- he didn’t let the disease live him, rather he lived the disease even past his projected date.
The biggest difference I would have done would be to talk to someone. Rhio O’Connor had family, practitioners, and probably enough research to fill a small library. It was in spreading out his information that helped him the most and kept him alive. Mesothelioma is an incredibly dangerous cancer that takes over 2,000 new patients each year. Rhio O’Connor was meant to be one of those patients, but he refused. His courage and stamina have been an inspiration to thousands, including myself. His research and life brought people hope and bravery, and his passing brought awareness and strength. He will continue to live on in the lives of those who follow in his footsteps-including my own.