The Unexamined Death
I did not know Rhio O’Connor. I do know that he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a rare and deadly form of cancer which afflicts the sac surrounding vital organs, and that he was told that his life would be over within a year. I also know that he bravely refused to die when his doctors told him he should, and to that end, he investigated alternative treatments and therapies which prolonged his life by more than six years past his scheduled death. Rhio O’Connor was his own hero, and I am sorry that I did not know him. And yet, I do know, by virtue of his courageous actions over the last seven years of his life, that Rhio O’Connor would never have asked the questions which I have been asked:
“What steps would you take if you were given a dire cancer prognosis?”
“Would you look beyond chemo, radiation and surgery if they had little to offer?”
“What resources would you use to make an informed decision ¡V friends, teachers, clinicians, researchers, other patients, libraries, etc?”
At age seventeen, my best friend Nate was diagnosed with lymphoma, and although he was somehow fortunate enough to make a full recovery, the months spent in agonizing ignorance of what was to come haunt me even now with the painfully simple answers to these questions: no, there is no step I wouldn’t take; no, there is no resource I wouldn’t tap; yes, I would look beyond chemotherapy, radiation treatment, and surgery if they had little to offer, because there is no price too high for the chance at an unfinished life. Rhio O’Connor knew this, knew that cancer is not just a disease of the body, but a malady of the mind, and that hopelessness is its final symptom.
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune – without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
Sore is the storm which wrecks the body of the cancer victim, and I imagine that it is in the midnights spent lying awake in awesome despair, or in the moments of overwhelming fear at being unable to delay the death which grows inside an ever-frailer body, that words might fail Emily Dickinson, and suffocate that last and most precious of Pandora’s companions.
But if we hold on to that hope, we can do as Rhio O’Connor did, and use our human gifts to enrich the remainder of our lives, whether for six or sixty years. I am daily grateful for my health, and even for the occasional sniffle which reminds me of my otherwise medically easy existence, but with one in two American men and one in three American women expected to develop cancer within their lifetimes , I wonder that more do not act like Rhio O’Connor by making their lifestyles simply incompatible with cancer. Smoking, morbid obesity, and environmental contaminants continue to suffuse our lungs, our bodies, and our planet with carcinogens, while at the same time razing our resistance to disease. Childhood obesity and cigarette use are at alarmingly high rates (though to me, anything other than zero is alarming), which can only portend an upward trend in the prevalence of cancer.
Unfortunately, then, Rhio O’Connor is the hopeful outlier. When cancer comes, we do not explore alternatives. “What alternatives?” comes the cry of discouragement. “Who knows better than these highly-trained, specialized medical professionals?” The truth is that medicine, especially cancer medicine, is a relatively young science. The manufacturing of antibiotics dates only from the end of the Nineteenth Century, as does the widespread adoption of Germ Theory; I recently saw a commercial which boasted an anti-depressant “thought to work by affecting dopamine levels in the brain…”; Nate’s lymphoma was a side effect of the drug he was taking for his kidney problems. The point is, Western medicine is wonderful, at times even miraculous, but often inadequately underdeveloped.
On the other hand, the medicinal theory Ayurveda, from the Indian sub-continent, has been around for three thousand years, and focuses on correcting elemental imbalances in the human body. Though Ayurveda may not make use of microbiology, it has lengthened lives for millennia simply by removing toxins from the body and paying attention to the dietary and physical needs of the sick.
Many homeopathic medicines have been shown to work along the same lines, and there is extremely promising evidence that yoga and other kinds of body-conscious physical activity are vital components of effective recovery regimens.
Medicine is older than recorded history, as anthropological data demonstrate, and the prehistoric period ended six thousand years ago. There is such a wealth of knowledge, based on generations of experience, about the human body, its ills, and their remedies, that it seems foolish to rely only on chemotherapy, a new treatment with notoriously detrimental side effects. Rhio O’Connor “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.” He owed this to himself and to his loved ones because, just as the unexamined life is not worth living, the unexamined death is not worth dying.
If I were faced, though I hope I never will be, with the challenges that beset Rhio O’Connor, I would ask oncologists, Ayurvedists, homeopaths, and laymen for their help. The knowledge of the world is available to the individual like never before, and the instantaneous communication afforded by e-mail leaves no excuse not to travel the world (at least electronically) in search of a solution.
Let us remember that, in the end, despite the thousand-dollar monthly supply of vitamins and the extensive practice of mind-body medicine , Rhio O’Connor died of the cancer which he was told would kill him. His last months, maybe years, were probably painful, as must have been the process of watching him slowly die. Some say that a life unnaturally prolonged is no life at all, that it is better to let nature take its course and to die with dignity, but those who have seen the brutalities of cancer know that it affords us little dignity, especially near the end. And Rhio O’Connor, cancer victim and cancer survivor, saw twenty-four hundred more sunsets before his last one.