In the Memory of James “Rhio” O’Connor
I wish to dedicate this essay to the memory of James “Rhio” O’Connor, a man who possessed great faith and courage in the face of adversity. Given less than a year to live by his physicians after being diagnosed with mesothelioma, a particularly deadly form of lung cancer, Mr. O’Connor refused to abandoned hope, and began to research alternative treatments for his cancer, amazing everyone by surviving seven years after his prognosis. He was a man who strongly believed in the mind-body connection, and I am convinced that his positive outlook earn him these extra years. His story is a testament to the incredibly strong human spirit and serves as inspiration for anyone who has walked the same road.
August 22nd, 2008, is a date I will never forget. A week prior, I had paid a visit to the Women’s Clinic for my yearly mammogram, a test I faithfully underwent annually for the past 10 years, ever since my mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Cameron University Fall session was in full swing, and as an enthusiastic 48 years old college sophomore, I was eagerly pursuing my dream of earning a degree in International Languages. Today, I was back to the Clinic for a repeat mammogram and ultrasound, because the prior test had shown a teeny, tiny shadow deep inside my breast. Lying in the dark on a cold, hard table, my right breast the focus of a young ultrasound technician who was way too quiet, my uneasy mind reminisced about how cancer had impacted my life. Besides my mother, maternal grandmother, and numerous uncles, aunts and cousins, cancer had also attacked my dear brother André, whose valiant fight had apparently eradicated an aggressive metastatic lung cancer five years prior, earning him the nickname of “our miracle patient” from his physicians. Suddenly, excusing herself, the young technician hurried out of the room, filling up my entire being with increasing dread. When a solemn physician in a white coat approached my bed, I knew, even before she gently took my hand, that the dreaded disease had found a path inside my body. “There is a suspicious mass,” she softly said, “and we will have to do a biopsy.” This biopsy, and subsequent lumpectomy would later reveal early-stage, ductal carcinoma. My well-organized world fell apart.
Born Marie Nicole Francine Mariâne Plourde, I was the only daughter of modest, hard-working French Canadian parents. My older brother and I were the only survivors of Mom’s seven pregnancies, and she called us her “miracle babies.” An idealist, I wanted to be a missionary, and was willful and headstrong, characteristics that only delighted my father and some teachers. Early in my life, I realized that a higher education would open doors for me, and it ignited the fuel that propelled me to excel in school. In 1977, one month after my eighteenth birthday, I stepped over the threshold of my hometown’s “Cégep de Chicoutimi,” hoping to major in Fine Arts and Literature. Unfortunately, financial difficulties forced me to abandon my studies. Disappointed, but not disheartened, I promised myself that I would return to school someday.
Love for a musician touring my native province of Québec in 1986 brought me to his hometown of Lawton, Oklahoma, where I still live today. I did not speak English, but quickly learned it by watching my then favorite shows on TV, “The Young and The Restless,” and “Late Night with David Letterman.” For many years, I was happy to be a stay-at-home Mom raising two children. When my baby was eight years old and my oldest twelve, I was accepted into Great Plains Area Votech Nursing program, and received My LPN license in 1999. For almost a year, I worked as a Rehabilitation nurse at Southwestern Medical Center in Lawton, and loved it so much that I applied for the RN program at Western State University in Altus. One day, while helping a patient to bed, she suddenly collapsed, and as I reached over to keep her from falling, three disks in my neck prolapsed, causing me to have a titanium plate and screws inserted. The incident disabled me enough that I could not pursue my Nursing career anymore. I was disappointed but not for long. I chose to return to school for the third time in 2007, and was ecstatic when I was accepted into Cameron University. I love college life, and have been able to maintain a 3.943 cumulative GPA.
When I found out about my breast cancer, I was faced with many choices. Numb and depressed by the diagnosis, I felt powerless and didn’t ask many questions to my medical providers. After a painful botched biopsy that found “a small focus of cancer” in my right breast, but failed to collect enough tissue to grade the tumor, I shook off my lethargy, and searched far and wide for the best oncologist surgeon in my area. I discovered him in Oklahoma City, and after reviewing the data from the previous biopsy that had left much of the tumor untouched, he declared that “the first thing we got to do is to get rid of the cancer”. I underwent a lumpectomy to remove the tumor, along with a sentinel node biopsy, a procedure that removes a few lymph nodes in the armpit area to see if the cancer had spread to other organs in my body. Fortunately, the lymph nodes were free of cancer, and I found out that I had Stage 1, estrogen receptor-positive ductal carcinoma; Stage 1 meaning the cancer was found in its early stage. Regardless, my oncologist and I decided that I should undergo chemotherapy, to make sure that every cancer cells would be eradicated from my body.
The four treatments of chemotherapy were to start in January 2009, at the beginning of the Spring semester at Cameron University, and I was faced with the tough decision of either stay in school, or cancel my classes. After mulling it over, and being inspired by my advisor, a breast cancer survivor who had continued teaching while undergoing cancer treatment the year prior, I chose to continue my studies, but decreased my workload to only two classes. I still felt quite depressed, and this mental state was compounded by the loss of my father who had passed away three weeks after my diagnosis; but I instinctively knew that following my student routine, and staying connected with others, would help ward off my depression. I was right. The first day that I walked on campus with my bald head covered in a scarf was very difficult. Reserved by nature, I did not like to stick out in the crowd. But I soon realized that people were very kind and accepting, and I often read admiration and respect in the eyes of my fellow students and professors. At school, at the grocery store, and even at the mall, strangers approached me, wanting to share the story of their fight against cancer, giving me hope and courage, while making me understand that I wasn’t alone. I joined a support group at my local chapter of the American Cancer Society, and realized that I, too, could be a source of inspiration for others. Filled with renewed determination to win the battle, I began to advocate preventive mammogram to any woman that would listen. A month after my last chemotherapy, my head adorned with a thin layer of fuzzy hair, I ditched my hats for the first time in five months, and proudly joined a band of cancer survivors to walk in the “Relay for Life”, an event sponsored by the American Cancer Society to raise money for cancer research.
Meanwhile, concerned about the extended history of cancer in my family, my oncologist referred me to a famous geneticist practicing at OU Medical Center in Oklahoma City. After reviewing my history, the geneticist became convinced that I must be a carrier of some sort of cancer gene, maybe the BRCA1 and BRCA2, the breast cancer gene mutations that are at the root of most breast cancers in women under 50 years old. He ordered me to undergo tests for four different cancer genes. Because of my neck disability, I was a Medicare recipient, and a demand was made to them. But Medicare refused to pay for the tests, for the sole reason that my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer after the age of 50. Outraged, the geneticist wrote a personal letter to Medicare, but to no avail. They refused to defray the costs, which amounted to over 3,000 dollars for only the BRCA tests. I could not afford to pay for them. Fortunately, my 23 years old daughter, a Canadian citizen, will soon undergo the tests at no cost, and I am so grateful for that, as it is well known that these cancer mutations are hereditary. I believe that anyone at high-risk should be tested, regardless of their ability to pay. We have the preventive tools to help decrease the number of people succumbing to cancer, but too often, the cost of these tools and methods is an obstacle.
Determined to decrease the odds of the cancer returning, I decided to undergo a bilateral mastectomy at the end of the 2009 Spring semester. I made this drastic decision based on facts. I knew from my investigations that the survival rates for early-stage breast cancer are similar with either a lumpectomy or a mastectomy, but I was convinced that my family history of cancer increased the odds of reoccurrence. Not wanting to take any chances, I opted for a mastectomy with reconstruction. I now have silicone implants, and in March of 2010, will undergo a fat graft to improve the cosmetic result. My decision was partially based on a study published in the September 2004 issue of JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, which confirmed that women with the breast cancer genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 had a lifetime risk of breast cancer of up to 85% if they didn’t undergo prophylactic mastectomy. Because it is very probable that I carry some sort of cancer gene, I opted for the mastectomy. There are many women who have chosen the same option for the same reasons, notably the young actress Christina Applegate, a BRCA1 mutation carrier, who discovered a very early breast cancer in 2008, while undergoing a breast MRI, a test she underwent routinely ever since she had known that she had inherited the cancer gene from her mother, a breast cancer survivor. Ms Applegate also underwent a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction. Many studies have shown that MRI surpasses mammography in detecting early-stage breast cancer, and can also avoid unnecessary biopsies. Mammography often fails to detect breast cancer in high-risk younger women with denser breast, and MRI would be very advantageous for these patients. Again, MRI is very expensive. It would make a big difference in these patients’ outcomes if MRIs were made available at a lower cost.
Many causes of cancer are preventable and for that reason, I have made drastic changes in my lifestyle. Numerous studies have shown that eating fatty foods, smoking and drinking increase the likelihood of developing cancer. It is well known that alternative medicine have had much success in fighting cancer. Numerous herbs, vitamins, and minerals act as cancer cells inhibitors, preventing the cancer cells from growing, and they have the added benefits of having no damaging side-effects compared to chemotherapy and radiation. I now eat a well-balanced diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables, and low in fatty meats and carbohydrates, and lost over 40 pounds. Plus, I have begun to buy organic foods, which are a little more expensive, but worth the cost, as they are free of the pesticides, preservatives and additives that may be damageable to our health. I have also been taking Tamoxifen for a year now, a drug that works against the effects of estrogen on cancer cells, and next month, I will be switch to Femara, a similar drug with less dangerous side-effects. A research in 2005 reported that recurrence of breast cancer in sites far from the breast was less common in women taking Femara that in those taking Tamoxifen. Vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, garlic and ginseng are part of my daily routine now, and I also take great care in keeping my mind free of depression by regularly visiting my University’s counselor. For the same reason, I have become an avid walker, and began learning guitar, something I had always wanted to do.
Like the great James “Rhio” O’Connor, I refuse to let cancer define my fate. I am taking 16 credit-hours this semester, and while visiting my Mom in Québec for the Christmas Holidays, I enrolled at the University there for the Fall of 2010, in order to spend more time with her. Some people don’t understand why I am so adamant about living my life to the fullest. Cancer has changed the way I look at life, and I understand that there is no time like the present. By my actions, I hope that I can show my human brothers and sisters that cancer doesn’t have to be a death sentence. I am proof that there is life after cancer