Undiscovered Blessings: One Man’s Walk With Mesothelioma
I stared at the doctor in disbelief. He was looking down at my feet, and he kept on talking. My wife’s hand squeezed mine, and everything seemed very quiet. The doctor’s mouth was still moving, but I hadn’t heard anything after he said “I’m sorry. You have a rare form of cancer called Mesothelioma, and there’s not a lot we can do. You have about a year to live.” I kept thinking that I would wake up, this would be over, and the nightmare would pass. The doctor finished what he was saying, then put a hand on my shoulder and left the room. My wife was sobbing next to me, but all I could think was how unfair it was and how I hadn’t done anything to deserve it.
I was still in a daze the next day. The doctor had come back in before we left and encouraged us to take a vacation, see relatives and friends, and start treatments when we got back. I determined right then and there that I would not go quietly. If this cancer was going to take my life, it would have to fight me to the death. I had too much to live for. Though my granddaughter was only 14, I resolved to be there when she graduated from high school. The first thing I did was to find a website about people who had survived Mesothelioma: www.survivingmesothelioma.com/. From there, I armed myself with as much information as possible so I would know what I needed to do to battle the cancer.
Mesothelioma is a tumor that grows inside the mesothelium, a sac that protects the internal organs and body cavities, like the lungs and abdomen. In most cases, as with mine, Mesothelioma is caused by asbestos exposure. I owned an HVAC installation company for 25 years before retiring, and I was exposed to asbestos on a daily basis, even after it was outlawed in the 1980s, as buildings were brought up to code. And, like most people, the discovery of my Mesothelioma wasn’t a quick one. In fact, I was misdiagnosed several times with viral pneumonia, suffering for months with a persistent cough, chest pain and shortness of breath. Finally, I was sent for a chest X-ray, and a savvy doctor put together my exposure to asbestos with my symptoms and sent me for a biopsy, where I finally received the correct diagnosis.
Once I determined that I was going to fight against Mesothelioma, I found a tremendous support network through the Surviving Mesothelioma website. The stories of other people who had courageously battled this disease – people like Rhio O’Conner –and outlived their prognosis by several years fueled my determination to do the same. Most importantly, I was able to find a support network of people who had been diagnosed with the disease and learn from them. I visited their blogs, emailed and called to ask for help, advice and treatment options, as well as to share my trials and successes. With their help, my days quickly filled with clinical trials, experimental treatments, and alternative medications and herbs. I began an exercise regimen that helped build up my lung capacity as much as possible, while reducing the amount of cholesterol and fat in my diet. Although the doctor prescribed pain medication, I limited it as much as possible, choosing to visit a massage therapist, acupuncturist and hypnotherapist to help manage the pain while enabling me to stay alert and spend time with my wife, children and grandchildren. I also found a geneticist with the Human Genome Project who specialized in cancer and was interested in finding a cure for Mesothelioma. He took samples of my DNA, as well as of my lung tissue, and created a research team to study the cancer. While it was unlikely that the research would find a cure in my lifetime, it was wonderful to think that my life might be used to find a cure for future generations.
One thing that I immediately did upon learning my diagnosis was to reestablish my relationship with God. Like many people, I had been raised by parents who attended church regularly, but I had fallen away from doing so as the demands of life pulled me in different directions. But I knew more than one person who believed that God had healed them of a disease that a doctor said was incurable. I believed in God, and I believed that He had that ability and power to cure this disease if it was His will. I also believed that He would see me through, providing me the strength and courage to get through one day at a time if I was to die from it. So I renewed my relationship with God, praying, attending church and reading the Bible. Not only did I gain a sense of peace, but I made friends who supported me and my family when we needed extra care, meals and respite.
As crazy as it seems, I also credit my survival to my “bucket list.” When I first received my diagnosis and the doctor suggested we take a vacation, I thought he was crazy. But when you’re life has is given an expiration date, you think about all of the things you wanted to do that you never got around to doing. Although I’m not terribly wealthy, my wife and I decided that we would invest in doing some of the things we had always talked about but never gotten around to doing because of work and other schedule conflicts. We took trips to see the Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Park. We traveled to Europe for the first time. I went paragliding off a mountain, and I went on a fishing trip for a week with my son and grandson. As I did each thing, I realized how many things I had yet to live to do, and my will to live grew stronger. I also gained a sense of accomplishment and purpose that had been lacking, and I began to see my diagnosis as the means to blessings in my life, rather than a death penalty.
It’s now been 27 months since I received my diagnosis – 14 months longer than the doctors believed I would live – and I’m still learning, still battling, still praying, and still living. Every year on the anniversary of my diagnosis, my family celebrates the joys we’ve had in the past year and asks God to help us through the coming months. The doctors still say it doesn’t look good; the tumor has grown almost a third as big, and I’ve developed immunity to many medications and treatments. But with every day, I meet someone new or encourage someone who’s suffering with Mesothelioma. I continue to work with the team of geneticists to find a cure, and I’m now the leader of a cancer support group at church. In many ways, my life is fuller and more blessed than it was before my diagnosis.