Less than a month ago, I learned of a scholarship essay contest, the James “Rhio” O’Connor Memorial Scholarship Essay Contest, which would deeply impact me, possibly changing my life forever. Writing essays for scholarships is pretty routine and part of a natural process in the search for college financial assistance. But this essay would prove to be different. The background information associated with this essay contest would intrigue me as well as tear at my inner self. I learned of the life story of Mr. James “Rhio” O’Connor. He was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a cancer that doctors said would claim his life in a matter of months. The medical community had little hope for him, offering no conventional treatment such as chemotherapy, surgery, or radiation. Perhaps, in a strange way, this was a disguised blessing, for these treatments weaken the body, and Rhio would need a strong body for his chosen path. Through his own determination he prolonged his prognosis tenfold-from months to years. Even when doctors recommended that he prepare for what they deemed to be his impending and fast-approaching death, Rhio was not complacent. He chose to fight—he chose life.
Persons exposed to asbestos can experience devastating manifestations sometimes decades after exposure as was the case for Rhio. His manifestation was mesothelioma. According to the Paul Kraus’ Surviving Mesothelioma website, mesothelioma is a form of cancer where cells of the mesothelium, the “membrane that covers and protects most of the internal organs of the body,”1 begin to divide uncontrollably. This cancer usually starts in the membrane surrounding the lungs, the pleura, or surrounding the abdominal cavity, the peritoneum. This cancer is frequently a result of exposure to chemicals, most likely asbestos. The symptoms can remain dormant until years after exposure. Although they vary throughout the body, the more common symptoms are chest pain and shortness of breath. This may be why mesothelioma is hard to detect. The treatment for the disease “depends on the location of the cancer, the stage of the disease, and the patient’s age and general health. Standard treatment options include surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.”2 In general, if the cancer has metastasized, that is, spread to other body parts, all of these methods are futile. Most physicians agree that these primary methods actually affect the survival rate and quality of life minimally.
Having worked for decades as a construction worker at shipyards and all around the country on buildings riddled with building materials, my grandfather, like Rhio, was exposed to asbestos. His exposure, however, manifested itself as pancreatic cancer. Unlike Rhio, the diagnosis was made far too late to help him. In fact, in the summer of 2007, my grandfather was hospitalized because of pains on his back and breathing difficulty. The doctors “thoroughly” tested him and concluded that he did not have cancer and should be placed in the hospital’s Occupational Therapy Physical Therapy Unit to build his strength. At the insistence of my mother, the doctors agreed reluctantly to do an MRI of his spine. They found lesions later determined to be adenocarcinoma, a catch-all for cancer of an unknown source. A later PET scan revealed stage-four metastasized cancer on nearly every bone in his body. Despite many tests, which primarily weakened my grandfather, the cancer’s source could not be isolated and time was wasted. It was finally determined that he had pancreatic cancer. Previously the doctors ruled this out after viewing an early CAT scan.
Faced with confusing diagnoses, changing timelines, no doctor to devise a plan of action, we felt lost, confused, alone, and helpless. With little guidance we were left with trying to find answers blindly. It should be noted that my little-educated grandfather immigrated here decades before. He had a language barrier and was not able to effectively communicate with the medical community. It seemed to my mother, his advocate, that the doctors quickly dismissed him with comments in the past tense, like “he’s lived a good life” and “perhaps he would not want to suffer through any treatments.” It appeared to us that the medical community was disinterested in this octogenarian. The hopelessness did not last long, for after all the painful and fruitless tests and procedures, his body was internally weakened and overtaken. In less than sixty days from his first complaint we buried a man, a husband, a father, a grandfather, a hard-worker, and a patriot–in short, a person—not an insignificant nobody who had outlived his usefulness.
Reading Rhio’s story was bittersweet for me. As I read, I wished that I had known about his story before my grandfather’s hospitalization in 2007. We would have been motivated to think outside the “medical” box for help. He might still be fighting his battle today. Rhio’s inspiring success story, outlined on http://www.mesotheliomaalliance.com/, twisted at my gut, for I saw how much it might have helped to prolong my grandfather’s life. Regrettably and sadly, we were ignorant of Rhio’s life-prolonging methods and those of other cancer fighters. However, Rhio has since given me a renewed hope. He opened my mind to options. He empowered me with a tool–a method outlining options for life, not death. I now can, by reaching out to solutions outside of conventional methods, discover weapons of unconventional means to empower my body to fight against an invasive cancer. By retaining a copy of his book, I can consume and reference his methodology and approach in the event that I must battle a dismal cancer prognosis. In this sense, I am already a winner in this essay contest.
Through our loss, my family knows the frustration, confusion, isolation, and helplessness of a dire cancer prognosis. Unable to quickly find viable solutions in the medical community, we were robbed of hope. Research in finding treatment options and making informed decisions is critical and time consuming. Rhio “spent hours in the library and spoke to countless doctors, researchers and patients. He learned what various therapies offered, their long and short term side effects, and the theories and philosophies behind them.”3 The task is daunting but necessary, but the result is powerful as it was for Rhio who “was able to help create his own therapeutic protocol along side the clinicians that he selected. He also developed the capacity to exercise informed consent that was truly fact based and informed.”4 This prolonged his life.
To prolong my life I would research the cancer and various treatments and therapies, conventional and otherwise. I would focus on successful and effective life-prolonging methods. Libraries, the internet, doctors, researchers, friends, clinicians, and survivors would be among my research list. Living close to John Hopkins University and Hospital, I would utilize their medical library resources. Fortunately, through this essay contest I have learned of new and indispensible resources: (1) Rhio’s book entitled They Said Months. I Chose Years! A Mesothelioma Survivor’s Story, (2) mesothelioma survivor Paul Kraus’ Surviving Mesothelioma website, and (3) the website http://www.cancermonthly.com/ – Cancer Monthly – “The Source for Cancer Treatment Results.” When Googled, the description states that Cancer Monthly “provides information about 100s of cancer treatments so that patients can compare therapy differences, longest survival rates, toxicity, …” These invaluable resources would offer information to inspire, guide, enlighten, and inform me.
Empowered by knowledge I would choose a holistic approach. My experience and Rhio’s story taught me that medicine alone is not the answer. Nutrition and the mind need to be included in the process. I would select knowledgeable and trustworthy doctors and clinicians who would incorporate the use of foods, vitamins, herbs and dietary supplements to strengthen the body to fight while it is being savagely attacked. “The alternative clinician can … suggest various herbs, vitamins, and other natural modalities designed to give the patient’s body what the body needs to manage the cancer….[for] there have been thousands of studies that have demonstrated that certain herbs, vitamins, and mushrooms can kill various cancers in test tubes.”5 “The concept is that once the patient is strengthened or given what is missing then the patient’s body can manage the cancer itself through its immune system and other biological processes.”6 My body would then be prepared to fight.
Supplementary to nourishing the body would be to incorporate my mind in the battle. “If what we eat can nourish our body, what we think can nourish our mind. Mind-body medicine focuses on the powerful ways in which emotional, mental, spiritual, and behavioral factors can directly affect our health.”7 To harness the mind to positively affect my body would be critical to my success. With Rhio’s inspirational testimonial, I would have the means to use my mind as medicine. Through a holistic approach, open-minded knowledge, competent doctors and clinicians, a body-strengthening nutritional program, and a powerful mindset, I believe that I would be armed to fight the fight of my life.
1, 2 Kraus, Paul. “Mesothelioma Basics.” Surviving Mesothelioma: A Patient’s guide. Available from https://survivingmesothelioma.com/basics.cfm. Internet; accessed 22 February 2010.
3, 4 “James “Rhio” O’Connor Memorial Scholarship Fund .” Cancer Monthly. Available from http://www.cancermonthly.com/scholarship.asp. Internet; accessed 19 February 2010.
5,6 Rhio O’Connor’s They Said Months, I Chose Years: A Mesothelioma Survivor’s Story “Self Sufficiency.” Mesothelioma: Survivor’s Story. Internet; accessed 22 February 2010.
7 Rhio O’Connor’s They Said Months, I Chose Years: A Mesothelioma Survivor’s Story “Mind Body Medicine.” Mesothelioma: Survivor. Internet; accessed 22 February 2010.
By: Barron, Donald Joseph, III