Words are truly funny things. They can be short or long, they can be powerful, or they can convey little meaning at all. From a grammatical standpoint cancer is just like any other word, but it is a word that can forever change your life. It conveys many messages: one of power, of fear, of despair, but most of all of hope. I truly believe that the meaning of cancer is what you make of it; you take control of it, and don’t let it take control of you. James “Rhio” O’Connor was given the life altering diagnosis of mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the mesothelium (lining of internal organs). Yet despite being told he had one year to live, he persevered, he did research, and he survived for another six years. James “Rhio” O’Connor was one of those people who understood the true meaning of cancer, and so am I.
What I found truly inspiring about Mr. O’Connor’s story was that he was a fighter. Not once, even when things looked grim, did he give up on his will to live. The prognosis of terminal cancer is something that could easily make people want to give up, but the important thing is always to keep going despite the odds. I found his story, perhaps, even more touching than some of my peers because I can relate. At 18 months, I was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma cancer in my right pelvis and leg. After a year of intense treatment, I was pronounced in remission. When things began to look as though they were improving, I relapsed, this time with a fist-sized tumor between my heart and lung. The oncologists told my parents I had a 10% chance of survival, but in all likelihood, the cancer would take my life. However, I was once again a survivor, and now I am eighteen years old and in my freshman year at Brown University. I was very young when I fought my battle with cancer but I still live with its effects today. Extensive radiation caused damage to my body, including my kidneys and the growth plates in my leg, spine and pelvis. This damage left me significantly shorter than my peers and prevented my leg from growing normally. After a failed attempt at a leg lengthening procedure, my leg was amputated.
My family and I know how the O’Connor family must have felt, to be told that there is no hope, and little else that can be done. Yet we also know the joy, the triumph of beating the odds and hanging in there when everyone tells you it’s impossible. What I have learned through my experience is, as a patient, it is crucial to be you own advocate. You need to fight for yourself and not rely on people to tell you what your options are. Do research, talk to other’s who are going through the same experience, learn as much as you possibly can about what you’re facing and you might just find it’s weakness. This is what Mr. O’Connor did, and what my family did for me. They looked into all the options, even trying a brand new procedure that allowed me to avoid major surgery. I have continued to fight for myself in dealing with the many side effects of my cancer treatment. It is stories like Mr. O’Connor’s that I find both encouraging and inspiring.
A lot more than medicine goes into cancer treatment. The biological aspect of cancer is treated with chemicals and radiation in an attempt to rid the body of cells gone bad. However, if we return to the meaning of cancer we remember there is a lot more than just biology. Some of cancer’s deepest effects are both mental and emotional. Yet there is a treatment for that too, and it doesn’t come in a pill or injection, it comes in the form of family, friends, optimism, and humor. When dealing with any kind of dire situation a strong, supportive network of family and friends is one of the most important things you can have. Without the love and support of my mother and grandmother I know I would not be where I am today. It is also crucial to remain optimistic, to “look on the bright side” no matter how dark things become, it helps you to remain strong. Finally, you need to remember to laugh, because laughter truly is the best medicine.
Cancer. A six-letter word with one of the deepest and most multilayered meanings I know. It is people like James “Rhio” O’Connor and myself who have come to understand cancer and embrace it’s meaning in our lives without letting it take control. I believe the thing that is most important for anyone faced with this six-letter word is to know that there is another word out there, a four-letter word that has more power than cancer ever could. Hope.