Ansong, Karen – Surviving Mesothelioma

Ansong, Karen

Life and Cancer

As he searches for my file, I sit facing the doctor trying with difficulty to suppress my anguish and nervousness. The doctor pulls up my file and after breezing through its contents, lifts his head and says: “as we suspected, the tests show you have pleural mesothelioma; a cancer affecting the lining of your lungs.” At these words, beads of sweat form on my eyebrows and I feel my breath shorten and heart pound faster. My eyes dart aimlessly around the office, from one diagram of the body to another, scores of important looking books neatly arranged in cabinets around the room, and the shutters drawn to let in just enough light— details of the consulting room I had become all too familiar with. My mind, however, goes blank and my eyes search in vain for a hint of the world that existed a few seconds back. Everything looks familiar and yet so strange; my world has changed.

“Please listen carefully to what I have to tell you,” he says with a pleading tone as my eyes return to his face after what seems like a long time. “Our suspicions,” he continues “about your CT and chest x-ray scans were confirmed by the biopsy and microscopic examinations we did. The mesothelium, the protective layer around your lungs, has been damaged by your contact with asbestos during your childhood. That accounts for the pain and shortness of breath you have been experiencing.”

Reading the blank expression on my face, he asks “Should I go on? And please feel free to ask any questions you have.”

“Yes, yes. Please continue,” I struggle to speak, my throat suddenly feeling dry and my mind buzzing with a million questions.

“I would recommend chemotherapy or radiation therapy, but I’m afraid they might be of little help judging from how advanced your cancer is,” he continues, this time looking me straight in the eyes. “I’m sorry to tell you that you have about a year to live.”

At these words, as if a cold wind had just descended into the room, I feel my skin erupt with goose bumps. “You have about a year to live.” This pronouncement echoes over and over in my mind until I can only see the doctor’s lips moving. “Why me?” I ask myself as tears whirl up in my eyes. “Why me?” I repeat, this time out loud and even surprising myself.

This scene above depicts what I imagine might initially occur were I am informed of having mesothelioma, a cancer that destroys the protective layer around the lungs, chest, heart and sometimes abdominal cavity, resulting mostly from exposure to asbestos and taking anywhere from fifteen to fifty years to develop. Although I have never suffered a fatal disease, I can easily imagine how paralyzing news like this would be for my family and I. I would not know where to start or what to do with the prognosis of having a year to live, whether to fight the disease or not. I might have questions but not know which ones to ask or how to ask them. My ultimate question, however, would be, “Why me?”.

I would turn to my religion and family first for help. My Christian religion being central to my life, I would turn to the Bible first for answers. The book of Jeremiah chapter 29 verse 11 says “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for calamity, to give you a hope and a future” (English Standard Version). With verses like this, I would assure myself that my creator has plans of prosperity for me and not of destruction; this cancer would not be my end. Everything happens for a reason; God, not I, has ultimate control over my life. The doctors might have told me that I have a year or less to live, but the decision of my life and death lies in God’s hands. Gathering courage and faith, I would refocus my energies from asking questions like “Why me?” to focusing on efforts to fight the disease. God would lead me to the right sources to help me outlive my prognosis. He might even be using my life with cancer for a greater purpose — to bring hope to people, to bring cancer awareness to others, to contribute to cancer research or to drive mankind closer to better treatment options. I would also seek counseling on coming to terms with my cancer and preparing to fight it. This process would also be easier with the religious, moral, emotional and financial support from my family, friends and local church. Thus with my religion and family behind me, I would begin the fight against my prognosis — the war for my life.

One can only design an effective plan of attack in a war by knowing one’s enemy well. Thus, I would start this fight against imminent death by learning about mesothelioma. I would ask many questions. Having by now passed questions like “why me?” with the help of counseling and family, I would inquire into treatment options and what their chances of working would be. While consulting my doctor I would research cancer centers in the area where I live, places I can get expert advice and information to evaluate my possible treatment options, through the internet, public and medical libraries. As a resident of New York, I would look to Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Columbia University Medical Center, and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center for expert advice on cancer diagnosis, treatment and therapy. Knowing my cancer, in this case mesothelioma, I would also look to the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation (MARF). Contact with such a foundation specific to my cancer would facilitate better research into treatment options. With these endeavors, I would gather reliable information on my opponent (mesothelioma) to begin planning effective attack strategies.

Having identified my foe and learned about it, I would increase my force of attack through my allies. Whilst still consulting my doctor, and with my church and family behind me, I would find cancer support groups to discuss my progress openly with others going through similar experiences. We would share questions, fears and doubts but together, we could learn to overcome many of them. I would learn how others are living with and fighting their cancers to help me plan my own battles. I might meet someone with the same disease, learn about ways to fight the cancer and possibly contribute new knowledge to their lives as well. Through such support groups and further personal research, I would look into alternative treatments like Intraoperative Photodynamic Therapy (IPT), Immunoaugmentative Therapy (IAT) and Gene Therapy (all of which have been studied scientifically). With further advice from my doctor , I might even participate in cancer research studies testing new therapies not yet popularly known, as well as other less recognized alternatives like diet plans, exercise techniques, vitamins and herbs which, with further research, could become part of my regiment to prolong my life.

In planning a war, knowledge about similar wars, current or past, could be indispensible to forming attack strategies. Through documentaries like Farrah Fawcett’s “Dying Documentary,” movies like “Wit,” journals like the “Cancer Research” by the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) and books like Paul Kraus’ “Surviving Mesothelioma and Other Cancers” and “The Cancer Journals” by Audre Lorde, for and about people living with and associated with various cancers, I would learn about experiences and information invaluable to my endeavors. Researching people such as Mr. Rhio O’Connor, who outlived their cancer prognosis, might provide hope of outliving my prognosis and possibly the key to my survival. Many people come into contact with asbestos through old buildings and low income jobs like mining. I would therefore join efforts to support mesothelioma awareness and research through organizations like Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO). This organization advocates the ban of asbestos in the United States to prevent diseases like mesothelioma, educates the public about asbestos, and in an effort to help the many people who have, are, or will be exposed asbestos, works to get the government to fund research for the prevention, early detection and cure for resulting diseases like mesothelioma.

Having gathered information about the enemy, assembled an army of allies in my family, church, friends and cancer help groups and health officials, along with various strategies of attack, I would march boldly to the battlefield armed to the teeth and ready to fight to the death. Some strategies might fail but never will I retreat. I might outlive my prognosis or I might not. At my death, however, I would have waged a good war and lived a fulfilled life knowing that my efforts have brought mankind closer to cancer cures, brought cancer awareness to my community and family, and most importantly inspired others to wage their own wars in causes they believe in.

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