The Strength to Survive
“I had never enjoyed going to the doctor as a child. I simply did not see a point in having my knee tapped to see if it was functioning properly. I mean, I had just walked into the room on my own. Whatever, I obliged. But this doctor’s visit was like none that I had ever been to before. I watched as they took vial after vial of my blood “just to confirm the results,” they told me. I thought, do they really doubt that I am healthy? I’m fine. Just let me go home for supper.”
“You have cancer,” he said. The grim expression on his face confirmed that this was serious.
Cancer. Just hearing the word can make you shutter. However, Rhio O’Connor did not allow a six-letter word to bring him down. Rhio was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma at the age of sixty-one in October 2001. Mesothelioma is a cancer that affects the mesothelium membranes around the internal organs of the body. Human mesothelium membranes provide lubrication between layers of cells so that organs can move easily against other structures. Doctors traced Rhio’s cancer to asbestos exposure during youth and gave him one year to live. Rather than sit tight with his clinician’s formula for care, he decided to take matters into his own hands. Rhio worked with professional clinicians to create a regimen of supplements and diet changes. Rhio succumbed to the cancer at the age of sixty-nine in July 2009 after a determined battle of 7.5 years. Since his passing, newly diagnosed mesothelioma patients have taken refuge to his book, “They Said Months, I Chose Years: A Mesothelioma Survivor’s Story,” and another mesothelioma patient’s book, “Surviving Mesothelioma and Other Cancers: A Patient’s Guide.” Rhio and Paul Kraus’s words continue to inspire patients to fight for their lives.
Doctors dread having other doctors as patients. They instinctively provide their input and suggest other forms of treatment, even when they are no longer the patient. On average, doctors spend no more than 15 minutes with their patients. Many malpractice lawsuits are centered around missed signs due to the rush of getting to the next patient. Simply put, doctors find knowledgeable patients to be annoying with all of their suggestions and questions. Rhio refused to accept his oncologist’s suggestion to check into a hospice. Instead, he pursued a new way of life. Rhio consulted other clinicians to formulate a new plan of care. He clearly did not fit into the common definition of a submissive patient that gave the doctor all of the control. Rhio appointed himself as an honorary doctor in the exam room, taking it upon himself to suggest treatments and regimens of medicine. Fortunately, he found doctors that were willing to sit down with him to get all of the facts straight. Clinicians that know how to listen to their patients are crucial to proper treatment.
Mesothelioma is generally treated with a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Overall, administration of this conventional treatment to mesothelioma patients has been relatively unsuccessful. Subjects have suffered from side effects such as toxicity due to chemotherapy drugs, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and even death in several studies. Rhio made a wise choice in rejecting his doctor’s suggestion of committing to conventional treatment. Given the results of past studies, the prescribed treatment was likely to just keep Rhio alive for about a year without improving his health. Rhio simply refused to accept that his life would be cut short. He decided to do whatever was necessary to overcome this cancer.
“Was I a rebel? Nah… that was only what kindergarteners were called. I was a samurai, like the ones that I learned about in eighth grade history. My daily supplements were my swords and my determination to live was stronger than any patriotism. I was going to live.”
The number one fear common to most humans is the fear of death. Rhio’s course of action was more bold and daring than anything undertaken in the past. I envy his ability to make decisions for himself even when it meant neglecting the suggestions of trained medical professionals. Rhio took a huge risk by not accepting chemotherapy or radiation in his course of treatment. In most cancer cases, those are the only treatment options and objecting them would mean definite death. Nonetheless, Rhio took a similar course of action to what I would have done in his situation.
Rhio’s journey began at the doctor’s office. Professionals are licensed in their respective fields and thus, their input should always serve as a basis for action. Whether or not that advice is taken in full is up in the air. Just as mom says, go to the doctor if you do not feel well. Rhio’s story has inspired me to be more of a difficult patient than I already am. As of now, I ask my doctor to tell me everything that he is going to do prior to starting. In the future, I will be sure to ask for other medication options and to hassle my practitioner to tell me more about myself. It is a shame that the medical system has come down to this. However, patients deserve to know about their own situations.
Next, Rhio had doctors collaborate their ideas and possible treatments. Second opinions are always useful in judging whether or not each doctor should be trusted. Rhio researched rigorously for alternatives to hospice life. Having volunteered at a hospice before, I would have definitely sought alternatives to living the rest of my life in one. Rhio had doctors collaborate to come up with different plans for treatment. He was an educated patient who knew what he wanted: to live. While he did not know how to achieve that, he exhausted his resources to put together the pieces of the puzzle.
The most valuable resource that Rhio had was knowledge. Doctors often tell their patients to learn about their illness, which is exactly what Rhio did. Prior to being prescribed a treatment plan, Rhio researched the side-effects and consequences of each conventional method. He did not allow himself to become a guinea-pig for experiments that did not promise positive results. Today, many online resources offer patients comprehensive guides to illnesses that simplify the search for information in desperate situations. Even so, I would be curious as a patient to know what was wrong with me. The first step in overcoming an obstacle is to understand it. Knowing how my body was malfunctioning would help me help myself toward the correct path. In this case, knowledge is the power to save your own life.
In economics, the point of maximum marginal benefit is where maximum fulfillment is achieved. If I only had a year left to live, I would try to maximize my marginal benefit per day. Perhaps the most efficient way of doing so would be to seek alternative treatments while on conventional treatments. This would make my mesothelioma bearable to live with as I sought other forms of treatment. Rhio practiced mind-body medicine and relied on his own discipline to get through the upcoming months. I would opt for the chemotherapy, radiation and surgery for the time being because they are carefully engineered for the specific purpose of targeting cancerous cells. Alternative medicine is not necessarily targeted towards cancerous cells; it is more for overall wellbeing and comfort. This decision would hopefully keep my body healthy enough to continue functioning for more than a year. Additionally, I would be contributing to science in my attempt to better my own health so there will be some benefit no matter the conclusion.
Early prevention is the best medicine available. An effective way to stay healthy is to not make yourself susceptible to illness. In Rhio’s case, his mesothelioma was traced back to childhood when the negative side effects of asbestos were unknown. Unapplied knowledge is the same as being uneducated; it is important that we take advantage of all that we know now that we are still capable of doing so. That way, we can avoid having to experience the same painful journey that Rhio faced. His story serves as a foreground for revamping of the US healthcare system with standards for care.
“How are you feeling today?,” he asks.
I answer — Strong. Alive.