In October 2001, sixty-one year old Rhio O’Connor was diagnosed with a cancer called Pleural Mesothelioma. After being diagnosed, Rhio’s prognosis was less than a year to live. In order for one to understand the true impact of the disease and Rhio’s battle, I will have to explain the disease, its symptoms and the various treatment options.
Mesothelioma is a rare type of cancer that occurs in the mesothelium. The mesothelium is a membrane that covers and protects most of the internal organs of the body. It is composed of two layers of cells; one layer immediately surrounds the organs and the other forms a sac around them. It produces a lubricating fluid that is released between these layers, allowing organs to perform various functions such as the beating of the heart, the lung expanding and contracting as they glide easily against adjacent structures.
There are three recognized types of mesothelioma; Pleural Mesothelioma is the most common form of the disease, accounting for roughly seventy percent of cases and occurs in the lining of the lungs known as the pleura. Peritoneal Mesothelioma occurs in the lining of the abdominal cavity known as the peritoneum and Pericardial Mesothelioma originates in the pericardium, which lines the heart. The only recognized cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos, though other factors such as smoking can make the disease more or less likely in some individuals. Reported incidence rates have increased in the past 20 years yet this cancer is relatively still rare. Only about 2000 new cases are diagnosed in the United States every year, with the frequency being more in men than in women. Risk increases with age but it is necessary to note that mesothelioma can occur in both men and women of any age.
Symptoms of mesothelioma may not appear until 30 to 50 years after exposure to asbestos. True to form, Rhio’s cancer was caused by his exposure to asbestos when he was younger. The symptoms of mesothelioma include but are not limited to; shortness of breath and pain in the chest due to an accumulation of fluid in the pleura (Pleural Mesothelioma). Symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma include weight loss and abdominal pain and swelling due to a build up of fluid in the abdomen. Other symptoms may include bowel obstruction, blood clotting abnormalities, anemia and fever. If the cancer has spread to other areas of the body, other symptoms may include pain, trouble swallowing, or swelling of the neck or face. Due to the similarities these symptoms have with other ailments, diagnosing mesothelioma is very difficult. Steps for detecting the disease include reviewing of the patient’s medical history and any exposure to asbestos x-rays of the chest, abdomen and lung, a CT scan, CAT scan or an MRI. If mesothelioma is suspected, a biopsy is then done to confirm findings.
Due to the advanced stage of Rhio’s cancer, and the position of the tumor near his spine, surgery was not possible and chemotherapy would decrease his quality of life and not significantly improve his length of life. Consequently, his doctor suggested that he first take a cruise with his wife and then start hospice upon his return. Rhio rejected the idea because he was determined to beat the cancer. Working with professional clinicians, he formulated a regimen of over 100 supplements a day, changed his diet, practiced mind-body medicine, and relied on his own discipline to see him through the difficult times ahead. Through it all he hoped to help and inspire others, by writing a book called “They Said Months, I Chose Years: A Mesothelioma Survivor’s Story.” Rhio survived for 7 ½ more years through his determination, knowledge, inexorable spirit, belief in something greater than he, and the ability to make tough choices -qualities that spell success in any endeavor. Rhio passed away on July 11, 2009. He was 69 years old.
Another case of survival and beating the odds is Mr. Paul Kraus who In June 1997, was diagnosed with mesothelioma and given only a few months to live. He and his family were stunned by the shocking diagnosis, but they were not ready to give up. They researched different therapies for this cancer and learned about chemotherapy, surgery, radiation and various complementary and alternative treatments. From this knowledge, Mr. Kraus worked with his doctors to create his own regimen to treat his mesothelioma and twelve years later he is still alive and enjoys a good quality of life. He too actually published a book called “Surviving Mesothelioma” which for a limited time is free to newly diagnosed mesothelioma patients. According to Dr. Bernie Siegel, Paul Kraus’ book has all the information a cancer patient needs in order to learn what survival behavior is.
For comparison purposes, over the next few moments, I am going to try and walk in Rhio O’Connor’s shoes. If I were diagnosed with mesothelioma or any other type of malignant cancer, my first emotion would undoubtedly be fear. From listening to others and being there while a few friends have gone through that experience, I know that victims of this ailment experience a myriad of emotions including but not limited to denial, fear, anger and hurt. I don’t suppose the emotions I experience would be any different.
Thereafter, I would evaluate my options based on how advanced my cancer is. Like Rhio, I think getting the medical opinions, prognosis and suggestions of many doctors is important. I would also reach out to as many cancer patients as possible; ask questions about their cancer treatments and what the outcome was. As the years go by, more and more experimental procedures are surfacing, like gene therapy and immunotherapy, so I would try and find out what the rate of success is on the different treatments and also the side effects if any. The library and internet would become great resources as there is so much I could find by doing research. There have been clinical trials sponsored by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) which are compiled in a database called the PDQ®. Information specialists at the Cancer Information Service (CIS) use this database to provide in depth information about these clinical trials, how they are carried out, their possible risks and benefits. Another great resource from the NCI is a booklet they’ve published called “Taking part in Cancer treatment research studies”, which goes into further detail about how these clinical trials work.
It is a known fact that a great percentage of cancer victims eventually undergo chemotherapy radiation therapy and surgery. However, due to the treatments debilitating effects on one’s quality of life, I would not opt for any of these afore mentioned treatments as a first choice. Rhio’s statement in his story further confirms that decision, along with my experience of seeing their effects on my friends. A few years ago, I actually had the opportunity to be one of the caretakers of one of my friend when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She opted for surgery and chemotherapy which on many days left her incapacitated. She was constantly nauseous and weak to the point where she wasn’t even able to get out of bed.
Looking at Rhio’s and Paul’s success in beating this monster for such an extended period would inspire me to mirror their actions and look at their findings to see if a similar regimen would benefit me. I would gather all my findings from the internet, libraries, doctors who use conventional treatments and those that use alternative methods, cancer patients, books like those from Paul and Rhio, information I have obtained from the NCI and CIS and together with my family and very close friends, I would weigh the pros and cons of the different treatments to realize which treatment seemed to be the best option. It would be important for me to understand the fact that everyone responds to various treatment methods differently. Also, having the support of the people around me would allow for some objectivity into the decision process as it would be a very emotionally and mentally draining journey.
However, in the end, because I believe in the power of prayer, I could not make such a huge decision before praying about it and getting peace about the final choice.