What would you do if you were diagnosed with cancer? I was.
Sadly there are many stories of cancer. Yet it is also these stories that inspire us to greater levels. I know that when I was diagnosed with melanoma skin cancer this past October, it was the heroic stories of those I knew that had also gone through their own battle with cancer that gave me strength. It was their passion for living that allowed me the empowerment to believe that there was no other option but to fight and win. Survivors recognize the truth – that cancer may not mean death.
According to the American Cancer Association, in the United States, men have slightly less than a 1 in 2 lifetime risk of developing cancer. A women’s risk is a little more than 1 in 3. This year, about 1,399,790 new cancer cases are expected to be diagnosed. In Colorado alone, the number is 16,850.
When I received the call from my dermatologist on October 1st, it was just one day after the mole was removed. The mole, or tumor, was 1.95 cm and scored 4 out of 5 on the Clark’s Scale. In order to not panic, I told people that my mole had cancer, it did not mean I had it. As it turned out, I was right. However, the time between knowing that was stressful and scary. The what-ifs creep in even if the mind tries to shut those thoughts out. These thoughts came to me as I waited the two weeks for the surgery and another to hear my “fate”. In order to determine if there was still cancer in my body, a section of my arm needed to be removed where the mole has been, as well as the sentinel node from my right armpit. If I chose not to engage in treatment, meaning surgery, I would only have a 50% survival rate. The survival was based on what I did about medical treatment, but I knew that I could further beat the odds by the use of whole-person treatment. The mind, body and spirit connection is a powerful force. I knew that using what I have learned over the years would be my key to survival, and I had to be my own advocate.
Much of my background knowledge came from my friends and family. To me, it was ironic that one of my presentations in my graduate program was on the use of positive psychology in cancer treatment. The reason for this choice can be credited to my friend Geoffrey who did not survive his diagnosis of lung cancer. When he was diagnosed, he began researching everything he could about the cancer. Treatment, prognosis, change in lifestyle, nothing would go overlooked. He was determined to try whatever may help him stay alive. As a psychology/sociology major, I was impressed when he told me about his daily visualizations. Geoffrey had a tumor on each of his lungs, on each of his kidneys and on his liver. He created images, similar to that of Pac Man and Space Invaders, that would attack and break apart the tumors. He would also visualize them shrinking smaller and smaller until they no longer existed. This visualization happened many times throughout the day. His morning would begin and his day would end with the tumors disappearing. The result was a baffled doctor. The doctor stated that there was no medical explanation for what the new results showed. The tumors were gone from the kidneys and liver. The two on the lungs were much smaller. The doctor said that the chemotherapy could not have done what he was now seeing from the new tests. Geoffrey’s last act of survival was one more round of chemotherapy. Unfortunately, his body was not able to tolerate it. Geoffrey died a few weeks later, but only after he gave me the gift of life. He taught me to enjoy life and not take it so seriously (as I so often did). Geoffrey had bought me a pair of socks that had the design of a yin-yang on the sides. The symbol reminds me when life seems too much, to remember balance.
An estimated time of how long a cancer patient has to live is just that, an estimate. It has the capability to change. Author Greg Anderson wrote in his book, Cancer: 50 Essential Thing To Do, “Refuse to give into despair! Healers are meant to instill hope. They do not schedule death. No human being knows how long anyone has left to live.” The person with the diagnosis must own their own program!
Anderson states that there are eight essential strategies to a program. First there is the medical treatment. Research. Learn what current treatments are being used, and research what treatments are in trials. It is the person’s responsibility to believe in and even be excited about the treatment program. The second strategy is using the beliefs and attitudes of the individual. Cancer survival is a matter of involving both the head and heart. The correlation between belief in treatment and effectiveness of treatment is very high.
Steps three and four are to exercise, and engage in a diet of healthy, nutritious foods. This is essential to giving the body the strength to combat the abnormal cells. A person should look into the recipes from cancer treatment trials of using a heavy vegetable and fruit diet in combination with medicine. A Stanford University health newsletter estimated that lifestyle issues such as poor diet, lack of exercise, and unwise general health habits accounted for 61 percent of the premature deaths due to cancer. Lifestyle is critical in the survival journey. (Cancer: 50 Essentials, p. 65)
Strategy five is the use of a positive social support system that will laugh and also be a shoulder to lean on. Step six is the use of creative thinking. Thinking outside the box creates opportunities. The Seventh strategy is to have a purpose. My grandmother will be 107 this next month, and one of her keys to life is having a purpose every day. The last of the eight essential strategies is spirituality. Spirituality to me is defined as what gives an individual power. It is what gives a person strength to be motivated. It may be their personal relationship with a religious philosophy, a walk in the woods or a day with friends. Spirituality is the energy within. Positive psychology combined with Eastern or Western medicine can be the secret weapon.
A person who has been diagnosed with cancer needs to set physical, psychological, and spiritual action points that will enhance their well-being, enrich their life, and ultimately help strengthen the immune system. These action points will play an important role in mobilizing the powerful self-healing capabilities.
Greg Anderson’s advice also includes recording questions. The person needs to ask questions to the doctor, medical technicians and other survivors. Nothing is to be assumed. Ask about medical terms, reasons for tests, results of these tests and record the answers. The person who is experiencing the cancer diagnosis is the one in charge. Asking questions gives power.
When it comes to the person as to why this scholarship exists, I believe that Rhio O’Connor lived with determination and was determined to live. I believe that he asked questions, he sought answers and devised a new plan. Like every creature in the animal world, human beings have a fierce instinct for survival. Rhio used that instinct to outlive a premature diagnosis.
The type of cancer that Rhio was diagnosed with was mesothelioma. The National Cancer Institute states that: “Malignant mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer, is a disease in which cancer (malignant) cells are found in the sac lining the chest, the lining of the abdominal cavity or the lining around the heart.” The cause of this cancer is exposure to asbestos. To discover more about mesothelioma, go to Cancer Monthly’s website www.survivingmesothelioma.com. This is a survivor’s website and it will provide information about this cancer, its diagnosis and treatment.
James “Rhio” O’Connor’s story resonated deep within me because of so many people in my life that have inspired me. He has obviously made an impact on people diagnosed with mesothelioma, or any type of cancer. He is unique, but does not have to be. Rhio is the proof that self-advocating is the most powerful form of treatment.