Words have Power, Knowledge has Even More
What three words could stop your life in its tracks and render what was once important completely meaningless? You have cancer. You have mesothelioma. The sound of those three words would send any strong human being into a well of despair. Terrifying as a gunshot, the word mesothelioma is a slithery word holding in it the weight of life and death. The mesothelium, an integral lining of your essential organs, something you didn’t even know you needed until now, is being destroyed by your own body. Rouge cancer cells are taking over, unstoppable, in the form of a tumor too precarious to remove. To receive such a diagnosis would seem like the end. Your entire body and soul affected, everything you’ve ever known or loved will be taken from you swiftly, and here comes the prognosis: less than one year. Only one more birthday, one more Christmas, one spring, one summer and that’s only if you make it long enough to see the whole year. This is nothing like Beaches or ER. This is like D-Day. This is a battle you know you will lose. There’s no time for denial. There is a relentless destructive force in your body, spreading and taking over. It is now a part of your whether you want it or not. What can you do? What do you have to fight with? You have your first weapon already. You have a word and you have a diagnosis, mesothelioma. This is the diagnosis that James “Rhio” O’Conner received when he was 61-years-old. Doctors told him he wouldn’t survive more than a year. But he did. He survived to be 69-years-old because he had the strength to look beyond modern medicine. With diligent research and determination, he became an active agent in saving his own life. And all he started with was a diagnosis.
You may not consider a diagnosis a blessing until you’ve been unfortunate enough not to have one. I’m talking about an enigmatic disease that’s been plaguing my mother, Laura, for the past seven years. It’s taken forty doctors’ visits just to find a doctor who was willing to work with her. My mother is being attacked by her own body, a vicious unnamed stranger causing her excruciating pain. That was just the beginning, what followed year by year was the loss of her mobility then the loss of her job, loss of vision, then loss of freedom, friends, sexual function, and a whole family’s finances, then loss of bladder function then even bowel function. My mother was never able to get a diagnosis. Instead she was told repeatedly, “I’ll have to refer you to another specialist.” But specialist after specialist got us nowhere, only more pain and frustration. My mother fights the opposite battle that James “Rhio” O’Conner did. Her battle is how to live with what is attacking her and the mystery of how it will progress. She’s had to fight urges to commit suicide because death is not in sight, only more pain. We are fighters in my family. I know this after seeing my mom fight so strongly against her unnamed assailant. So what would I do if I were diagnosed with mesothelioma? I would fight, starting with my diagnosis.
After receiving the dreaded pronouncement, I would then find a notebook, something big so I could scribble my thoughts and woes amidst facts and theories. I know myself and I know the first place I would go. I would like to say it would be immediately to the library or to Chicago (my nearby metropolis) to interview professors and specialists. But no, my first stop would be my bed, alone in my favorite pajamas with my pillow and loyal cat, surrounded by used tissues and prescription bottles. I would be crying out to God, “Why would you let this happen to me!? I’m only a young girl who will never get married or have children or finish my degree.” The urge to fight would only be a small kernel of hope, (a hope perhaps of maybe a few more years, to love, to travel and to write) little and pushed far down in my gut, waiting to be accessed. Thanks to modernity, this battle would begin in the comfort of my bed as I would sit with my laptop, blurry-eyed and afraid as I searched online about mesothelioma. The search would distress me and inevitable bring more racking sobs at phrases like, “For some physicians, these therapeutic gains are not impressive. (www.survivingmesothelioma.com)” With a dismal outlook how could I begin to muster hope? How could anyone? But perhaps I would stumble upon the story of someone who did.
James “Rhio” O’Conner was a man who, at the age of 61, was told he had a single golden year in which to finish all he had been put on this Earth to do. He not only beat his prognosis and lived 7 ½ more years than predicted, but he also accomplished something invaluable: his book, “They said Months, I Chose Years.” Somehow in the face of overwhelming devastation, Rhio mustered his courage. He did not allow his choices to be dictated by the modern medical system. He looked beyond the traditional options and was rewarded with more life. During his last few years he not only survived, but he allowed his personal tragedy to be used as a beacon of hope for others. Without hope, action has no fuel. But without action, his hopes could not have materialized. The beauty of the internet allows us to no longer be passive in our acceptance of such diagnoses, which is why I would begin my research at home on the computer.
My next stop would be the oncology department of the hospital that was treating me. This may seem to some like the last stop, but I would view it as my first. With my notebook in tow, I would ask all my doctors to tell me every single treatment option. This is where my kernel of hope would take a blow. Chemotherapy treatment may add a few months to my life. Radiation therapy may reduce the pain. Surgery may relieve pain and pressure cause by a tumor if the tumor is operable. There is no cure and nothing giving me more time than a few months. Side effects of chemotherapy include nausea, muscle pain, depressed mood and more, all this for the possibility of a few extra months. Should I just take a cruise and kiss my loved ones goodbye? That’s what Rhio’s doctor told him to do, but he refused to let that be the end of it. Through his intensive research and healthy regimen he blew that prognosis out of the water. I hope I would find the fire to do the same thing.
So after scouring what Western medicine had to offer, I would move to alternative sources. I would visit holistic doctors and ask them for prompts or directions to take my research, keeping track of these options in my notebook. I would change my diet and take vitamins and herbal supplements according to a plan I would form with the help of dieticians and research. I would try things like reflexology and yoga which would improve my mood and also my mind-body connection- an important aspect of Rhio’s treatment. I would attend group therapy and try to meet others who are in my same situation and I would pray to the God that brought me into this world.
It would not be easy. It would be far easier to take the cruise and indulge my every whim until I my time came. I’m sure it would be rough at times to spend what could be my last days in a strict regimen of diet and exercise. But I would do it because I know I’m a fighter. I would fight so that I could see my best friend get married and have her first baby. I would fight for a chance to write my novel which is a dream I have held since childhood. I would fight for time with my family and most of all for the other survivors who were engaged in the journey with me, for people like James “Rhio” O’Conner and even my mother who continues to fight to this day. Because of his determination, Rhio created hope for all those that might find his story. James “Rhio” O’Conner proved that it’s worth it to take an active stance in your life and to always educate yourself. You can always fight, and in fighting, you will accomplish what you would have never thought possible.