Csernica, Riley – Surviving Mesothelioma

Csernica, Riley

Choosing Your Own Path

“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.” –Eleanor Roosevelt

James “Rhio” O’Conner was the epitome of a fighter. After being diagnosed with mesothelioma, a rare, malignant form of cancer that attacks the cells lining one’s internal organs, doctors were sure he had only one year to live. Although the odds were against him, Rhio was determined to fight his cancer. Taking matters into his own hands, he came up with his own treatment regime. Rhio spent countless hours researching his cancer, talking to specialists, and looking for alternative forms of medicine. His courageous spirit and tenacity allowed him to prolong his life years longer than any doctor would have expected. Rhio’s story is a remarkable one that undoubtedly moves many people. However, when I read about Rhio’s courageous fight on Cancer Monthly’s website, I was especially touched by his story, for I could not help but be reminded of someone very close to me who fought cancer the same way Rhio did: my dad.

When my dad was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in August of 2004, just days after his 46th birthday, I knew he would stop at nothing to beat it. At every doctor’s visit, his physicians continued to tell him he had only months to live, but the months rolled on and my dad continued to go against every statistic thrown at him. My dad had convinced himself, his friends, his family, and even some of his physicians that he would beat his cancer. Much like Rhio, my dad lived much longer than doctors predicted, and I firmly believe that these men were able to beat the odds because of their strength, courage, and passion for life. As I watched him battle cancer for almost five years, I was so amazed that my dad never missed a session of his countless chemotherapy treatments and bounced back after each one of his surgeries. He read every article on the Internet about colon cancer, talked to doctors all over the U.S. about alternative treatments, spent a month in a cancer research center in New York receiving surgeries and cutting edge radiation treatments, and spent three months in an alternative cancer treatment clinic in Arizona. Even though my dad overcame many odds in his fight against cancer much like Rhio, he ultimately passed away on April 7, 2009 after a courageous battle.

While my dad and Rhio exhibited an absolutely remarkable dedication for fighting cancer, I know through experience that their fights did not come without a price. Although my dad appeared strong and healthy on the surface for years, the cancer was beating him in a way that no scan could spot and no doctor could diagnose. By choosing to do anything and everything to beat his cancer, he lost time to spend with his family doing the things he loved to do; beating cancer became a second job for him. Every chemotherapy session made him tired and sick. Every surgery kept him in the hospital for days, even weeks, recovering. Every alternative treatment clinic took him away from our home for weeks, sometimes months, at a time. Some days my family felt like we lost our dad to cancer long before he passed away from his illness.

As much as I admire the way people like Rhio O’Conner and my dad fought their cancer battles, if I had to face a cancer diagnosis like either of theirs, I honestly do not believe I would fight my battle the same way. Living with someone who had cancer for almost five years proved to be both a cross and a blessing. It was difficult to watch my dad spend his life seeking treatments that sent him state to state, receiving chemotherapy week after week, and having surgeries month after month. However, I also saw our family’s fight with cancer as a blessing. At an early age I learned about the unpredictability of life and the importance of family. Being able to truly understand the beauty of life’s blessings is something many people do not truly value until they are older, yet I received this wisdom at age 19. Having lived with someone battling cancer and having seen just how costly that fight was, I do not think I could dedicate so much of my life to finding a cure for myself. I would certainly go through the standard protocol: taking chemotherapy and having surgeries; I would conduct my research by reading personal testimonies, talking to cancer patients and survivors, and reading some of the countless books that have been written on battling cancer to ensure that I was making a rational and informed decision regarding my cancer treatments. However, if it came to a point where surgeries and chemotherapy were not showing any results, I feel my past experiences would lead me to stop fighting and start living. If it came to the point where I was told I had six months to live, I would rather bounce a tennis ball back and forth with my brother than bounce from one state to another looking for a cure that may not yet exist. I would rather get an overpriced haircut with my mom than spend money on chemotherapy treatments that make my hair fall out, yet show no signs of killing the cancer. I would rather spend my time with my family taking our usual trips to the mountains, than have doctors’ words hit me like boulders when I am told how I should or should not battle my illness. Some might say that my willingness to surrender would make me a coward. I disagree; it requires just as much courage to take fate into your own hands as it does to leave your fate in God’s.

While cancer took my dad from my family, it gave us a strong passion for life. I see this passion as a true gift, and to let cancer hamper my life would undermine everything my dad and his experiences have taught me. I realize that my preferred approach to tackling cancer may not be the conventional way, yet the path my dad and Rhio chose to follow in their search for treatments was unconventional, also. From my personal experiences, I have witnessed that you must find it in your heart “to do the thing which you feel you cannot do” and combat cancer in your own way. For Rhio and my dad, they had to do all they could to find a cure, leaving no stone unturned; for me, I would have to prevent myself from allowing battling cancer to become a second job. While these approaches are very different, they are similar in that they provide the strength necessary to face cancer. By making a decision as to how to approach your cancer battle and staying true to your beliefs, you will find that the inner strength, courage, and self-confidence you receive from your choice can be just as powerful weapons in your fight as any chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery available.

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