“I worship this tenacity and the beautiful struggle we’re in.” Pitch, Lang
In the last two years, I have been honored to work with many different people through The Hospice of Dayton. I have been amazed to watch the depth and breadth of strength, kindness, courage and compassion with which so many people live the entirety of their lives. The opportunities to grow through these interactions have been such a blessing, as has the opportunity to explore how I might deal with being given a terminal diagnosis.
Each disease is so different, and I hesitate to make a bullet point presentation on how anyone could or should approach this. It is so subjective. Instead I have found clarity through learning the story of one person who was told he had cancer and less than a year to live.
Jon ‘Rhio’ O’Connor was 61 years old when he received the diagnosis of having pleural mesothelioma. This type of cancer impacts the mesothelium, the membrane that protects and covers most of the bodies internal organs, and is almost exclusively caused by asbestos exposure. Likely looking at statistics, Rhio’s doctor told him that this cancer impacting the lining of his lungs and chest would give him a short time to live. He should take a cruise and get his affairs in order.
Modern western medicine at its best has one foot in the world of healing arts and the other in the cutting edge laboratories of research and science. When the laboratory turns its sign from ‘open’ to ‘closed’ and lets a person know that there is little that can be done for them, it is more than daunting. Often it can feel like, and quickly become, a death sentence. Too, war words are primarily used in the description of the way a person relates to and deals with a diagnosis of cancer. As people battle, fight, and contend against the overgrowth of cells in their skin, organs, muscles or bones, their body remains stuck in the sympathetic nervous system; the system that keeps us fighting or fleeing in the face of a mortal threat. It is difficult for a personal to heal when under this kind of stress.
There is much more that is involved in overcoming or living with the diagnosis of having cancer. Practicing fierce vitality- a dedication to promoting and protecting and celebrating all of the ways a person experiences being alive- can be a wonderful way of channeling the will to survive. And doing so in a way that does not imply violence; a mother bear fiercely loves her cub, an athlete fiercely competes to win, an individual dealing with cancer fiercely engages their vital energy and resources to overcome the limits of their diagnosis.
Rhio was able to do just this. Combining his own thorough investigation into current medical research with ways he could tap into the healing arts of his own body through supplements and diet, he was able to extend his life for seven years beyond his initial diagnosis. He wrote a book and titled it “They Said Months, I Chose Years.” In it he shares his story and offers all he learned as a person living with and surviving mesothiloma as a resource for others.
There is a country song whose lyrics are all about the sweetness of having one more day with someone who is missed. Rhio was able to have more than two thousand days with those he cherished and able to experience more of the world and all is mysterious glory as a result of his tenacity and vitality. When I talk to people about my work, they often ‘knock on wood’ saying that they hope they won’t have to deal with a terminal diagnosis. I cannot say that I don’t do this sometimes as well, but it is less and less often. Stories like Rhio O’Connor’s give me the strength to know that I too would be able engage my intelligence, resources and fierce vitality to overcome a limiting diagnosis.