Dowell, Rita K. – Surviving Mesothelioma

Dowell, Rita K.

I have spent countless hours applying for college scholarships over the past months, with much of that same time spent mentally complaining about the endless essays required by most reputable scholarships. I would imagine that I’ve written more than 20, but none caused me to stop and truly put some thought into the message behind the essay until this one. James Rhio O’Connor’s battle with mesothelioma, a lung cancer linked to asbestos exposure, is truly an inspirational story that proves that you do not have to go to medical school to play a very active role in your own medical treatment, nor should you blindly accept every prognosis you are given just because the person giving it has been to medical school. He did what any successful military leader would do if faced with a lethal foe he knew little about: he gathered intelligence about his enemy, (“Mr. Meso,” as termed by James) then he took the fight to his opponent, rather than waiting for his opponent to come to him. As the saying goes, the best defense is a good offense, and James definitely mounted a good offense, beating his prognosis of months by surviving for over seven more years.

I spent 18 years serving my country in the U.S. Army, and in James I recognize the best qualities of many of the world’s great military leaders; leaders like Sun Tsu, who said, “To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.” James studied his enemy diligently, searching for it’s weaknesses, and exploited those weaknesses through natural supplements and a very healthy lifestyle, and it added over seven years to a life that had been promised only months. Mr. Meso attacked James without warning and without provocation, much like New York was attacked on September 11, 2001. Until that point, though America realized Al Quaeda was a mortal enemy, we were content to let the rest of the world fight rather than join in. 9/11 woke us up, just as James’ pleural mesothelioma diagnosis woke him up. Until then he believed, as most people do, that his fight was with a normal aging process and the health conditions that come with it. Lieutenant General William S. Wallace, the U.S. Army’s senior ground commander in Iraq, said, “The enemy we’re fighting is different from the one we war-gamed against.” Such was James’ enemy. Rather than lying down and letting his enemy invade and conquer, he studied his enemy and exploited every conceivable weakness it displayed. His story is a testament to the power of the human spirit and the way that knowledge can tip the balance of power in our favor.

I heard of mesothelioma through a television add for a tort lawyer who was filing suit on behalf of patients diagnosed with the condition, then I promptly forgot about it. Little did I realize how that commercial would come to impact my life. Several years later, while stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, I learned that my unit would have to vacate the building we had occupied for years because it was being demolished due to its high asbestos content. I immediately flashed back to the commercial about the mesothelioma lawsuit and began my own research. Though, through the information I gathered on the web, it appears that my likelihood of contracting mesothelioma is low, what I read about this cancer was chilling. The vast majority of mesothelioma patients have no hope for a cure, and usually once the diagnosis is made the cancer is well advanced. It’s a nasty disease and it is absolutely lethal. James refused to accept the few-months prognosis he’d been given despite all of the disheartening information he had to have encountered on the web, and chose to focus on what he could do, rather than on the hopelessness of the cause. In doing so, he inspired many to follow suit.

James authored a book entitled, They Said Months, I Chose Years: A Mesothelioma Survivor’s Story, chronicling his fight, and in doing so he left a permanent legacy to fellow mesothelioma patients, as well as a consolidated source of reputable, invaluable information about the disease. From beginning to end, his book is resoundingly optimistic in its approach to fighting this horrible cancer. Even in the introduction James’ positive outlook was evident. In describing his thought process while waiting for the results from the biopsy of his lungs, and states, “During those moments my life felt like it was on hold until I heard the diagnosis and prognosis. But, then a voice somewhere in my mind said that it didn’t matter. Whatever the doctors said, I knew I could conquer it.”

I am so inspired by his courage, optimism and fortitude. I am inspired to research ways to improve my diet that could improve the possibility of my living cancer-free. I would like to believe that if I was faced with a similar situation I would fight rather than succumb. I would like to believe that I have the same character and positive attitude that James displayed, but I don’t know that any of us can truly know that about ourselves until we are in a similar situation. What I do know is that if I am ever faced with imminent death, I will remember James Rhio O’Connor’s refusal to accept defeat, and I believe that he will inspire me to take my own fight to the enemy.

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