Over the past hundred years advances in medicine have forever changed the way we view human health. From the discoveries of Pasteur, Fleming and Salk to the amazing advances in imaging, biochemistry and pharmaceuticals, the list of medical miracles continues to grow. These stories, told in classrooms around the world, have inspired many to go on to become researchers and physicians. However, there is another story, equally inspiring, which is not being told, that of James Rhio O’Connor (Rhio). The strength of Rhio’s story lies not in discovery, but rather in the unity of knowledge. Through courage, perseverance and exhaustive research he was able to bring together the technology of today with the holistic knowledge of the past and in doing so he outlived the most optimistic estimates for his survival by seven and a half years.
In October of 2001 James Rhio O’Connor was diagnosed with Plural Mesothelioma. Mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer develops in the mesothelium, the membrane that surrounds the vital organs of the body. The mesothelium is divided into several regions: the pleura which surrounds the lungs and internal chest wall, the peritoneum, lining the abdominal cavity and the pericardium, the sac surrounding the heart. The diagnosis of this form of cancer is often difficult as the symptoms mirror those of other forms of cancer and the incubation period between exposure to the carcinogen and the onset of symptoms can be as long as 30 years. Diagnosis begins with a thorough medical history. Most cases of Mesothelioma can be linked to some form of asbestos exposure so if the patient has that in their history it helps support a diagnosis. The history is usually followed by x-ray, CT scan, plural/peritoneal effusion and often times a biopsy through either a thorocoscopy or laparoscopy. The conventional medical options of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy treatments are palliative for this disease. The treatments are not intended to be curative, but rather to extend the number of months the patient has left. Although these treatments may indeed extend life expectancy it is often at the cost of quality of life. Through the eyes of conventional medicine a diagnosis of Plural Mesothelioma is an impending death sentence.
On that fateful day in October of 2001 Rhio’s physician suggested to him he take his wife on a cruise, get his affairs in order and upon returning enter hospice care. His doctor had given up before even starting. Rhio was unwilling to lie down and die, he knew there was life left in him and he was certainly not going to give up without a fight. He began scouring every available medical article he could find. He talked with many people diagnosed with cancer and found out how they were approaching treatment and he worked tirelessly with professional clinicians, dietitians and holistic practitioners to formulate a treatment plan. In his book “They Said Months, I Chose Years: A Mesothelioma Survivor’s Story” he chronicles his educational journey of life after diagnosis. Through diet, nutrition, taking nearly one hundred supplements a day, and informed decision making Rhio was able to manage an unmanageable disease.
As I read Rhio’s story a chill ran through me. I felt as though I was reading the story of the life of a good friend of mine. In 2004 Mike was diagnosed with gastric adenocarcinoma and followed his doctor’s advice of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy treatment. The treatment was awful and left him frail but in remission. Four years later his cancer returned and he made the decision not to repeat the medical course he had chosen before. Like Rhio he became his own medical advocate. He spent hundreds of hours researching the disease, talking with clinicians open-minded enough to consider alternative therapies, nutritionists and a holistic practitioner with prior experience treating people with cancer. They worked together to create a treatment plan focused on diet, nutrition and supplements. Mike’s primary care doctor helped him monitor his body chemistry and utilized current imaging technology to monitor his progress. The path he chose was difficult and on many occasions I wondered how he would go on. He held true and his belief in what he was doing kept him strong. I asked him once how he knew he was doing the right thing. He told me, “I listen to my body and what it’s telling me. Cancer is a living thing and like all living things it needs a certain environment to thrive and grow.” His treatment plan revolved around that idea. He was convinced if he could take away the things the cancer needed to survive and make the environment within him inhospitable to it he could drive the cancer from his body. He attacked the cancer with one hundred percent conviction. He was fanatical about what went into his body. He told me once that if he did not know where something went and what it did for him once he put it in his body it wasn’t going in. He would often lose me when he talked about aspects of his treatment. He would mention things like pH and alkaline environments, mitotic interrupters and a dozen other things I didn’t understand, but he did. His results have been amazing and his doctor told him he would not have believed it if he had not seen it happen with his own eyes. Mike is now in complete remission and doing well. He is building a lifestyle around his treatment and is optimistic about the future. Like Rhio, he refused to accept what tradition medical convention had to offer and found his own path to health.
It is impossible to know how you might accept the news of a medical diagnosis of cancer until you are actually faced with it. However, I would like to believe that I would be able to find the strength and courage shown by Rhio and my friend. I know that I would be able to draw upon Mike for support and in by seeing how both Rhio and Mike have been able to take control of their disease I would attempt to address mine with similar conviction. Whether or not I would be able to find the strength necessary to follow their example could only be known with time, but the inspiration I would draw from their stories would help guide me on that path. We need to listen to what our intuition tells us. Alternative approaches should not be feared but always investigated as another perspective in finding the right answers. I also believe that stories like these need to be told. We live in the information age so getting the word out should not be difficult. In doing research for this essay I read several other incredible stories like that of Rhio’s. For anyone interested in finding out more about Mesothelioma, alternative cancer treatments or reading the stories of others like Rhio, visit http://www.cancermonthly.com