The life of Mr. James “Rhio” O’Connor is an inspirational story of a man who was diagnosed at the age of 61 with pleural mesothelioma—a type of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. Mr. O’Connor’s doctors gave him less than a year to live, but through thorough research, changes in diet and exercise, and sheer determination, he turned what should have been months into years. His commitment to research enabled him to make informed decisions regarding his treatment plan and caregivers, devising his own regimen of daily supplements and mind-body medicine. Rhio set a remarkable example of someone who became his own health care advocate and his work enabled him to outlive his prognosis by more than seven years. His experience with cancer not only contributed substantially to research related to mesothelioma, but his story also gives hope to many facing similar prognoses (https://survivingmesothelioma.com/rhiooconnor.cfm).
When I was in high school, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I still vividly remember the day she told me the news. As her eyes filled with tears, she told me that I was the last one to know because I would be the hardest one for her to tell. She had found the lump herself. Three doctor visits and one biopsy later, her doctor informed her the lump was, in fact, cancerous. By the time she had come to me, a lumpectomy was already on the calendar. She would receive radiation treatments, but felt chemotherapy was not necessary.
I was grateful to hear this. I had just watched one of my close friend’s mothers fight a very difficult battle with breast cancer. She lost all of her hair and there were days she couldn’t pick her daughter up from school because she felt so sick. The community pulled together and we all did everything within our means to help out in any way we could. When my mom told me of her own diagnosis, I couldn’t help but realize it was the same cancer that my friend’s mom was fighting. My mom promised me her cancer was in a different stage and I believed her because it was what I wanted to hear. I was glad my mom would not have to lose her beautiful curly hair.
Not only was she fortunate enough to have the option of forgoing chemotherapy treatments, my mom also managed to make her battle with cancer seem effortless—though I know this was not actually the case. She went from radiation therapy straight to work and never seemed to miss a beat. She never broke in front of me. In fact, the hardest part of my mother’s experience with cancer was my feeling uninformed. I didn’t want to be protected; I wanted to know everything. But still, I felt information was withheld from me.
Thankfully, my mom has been cancer-free for five years. I graduated high school and moved to Austin, Texas to begin my undergraduate study at The University of Texas. I am now in my senior year and graduating with honors in May with a degree in psychology. I have since matured significantly and college has opened my eyes to the harsh realities of the world we live in. This exercise makes me reflect back on her experience with cancer and wonder what I could have done differently. I could have researched breast cancer and treatment options and I could have even spoken with my mom’s oncologist myself. But at that time, the statistics didn’t seem to matter. I knew the odds were in her favor, but that cancer knows no limits. I felt my only option was to hope for the best.
If my mom were to relapse tomorrow, or if I myself were to be given a diagnosis of cancer, I would approach the situation differently today. I am no longer young and in need of protection. In fact, I am convinced that my lack of awareness to my mom’s medical conditions before only caused me more anxiety—it left me to come to my own conclusions, which were often far worse than reality. Knowledge is power and I firmly believe that everyone is responsible for being his or her own medical advocate. Thankfully, my mom was proactive in her self-exams and she was well informed of her options. She learned that chemotherapy, the go-to treatment for cancer, is essentially a poison that heals only by killing off cells and would only decrease her odds of recurrence by a mere fraction of a percentage. She also knew that due to the small size of her stage I lump, it could be effectively treated with a lumpectomy rather than a mastectomy. Had my mom not taken the initiative to self-screen, consult her doctors, and research her options, she may not be here today.
In the time since my mom’s remission, I have become actively involved in the fight against cancer. This past spring, I began the application process to become a member of Sense Corp Texas 4000 for Cancer—the world’s longest annual charity bicycle ride. I was selected for the 2010 team and have since been fundraising and training for the upcoming summer. Beginning in June 2010, my teammates and I will ride our bicycles from Austin, Texas to Anchorage, Alaska spreading hope, knowledge, and charity for over 4,500 miles across North America in the fight against cancer. We raise money for cancer research and donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas each year (I have personally raised $8,663.00, so far). Along the way, we stay with host families who have been affected by cancer. In many cities along the route we also give presentations to raise awareness about cancer research discoveries and tips on prevention and self-screening. Healthy lifestyles including diet and exercise are not only important points in our presentations, but a way we pledge to live our life, always teaching by example.
One of the most rewarding aspects of my involvement with Texas 4000 for Cancer has been the reach and impact of my personal blog. Because of the unusual nature of this experience, I wanted to keep my family and friends updated on my training and my 70-day journey this summer. I have been so touched by the response I have received—from my closest family members to people I have never met before—all interested in my experience with Texas 4000 and all supporting through financial donations, words of encouragement, stories of their own cancer experiences, or some combination of the above. I believe this reach and awareness is something Mr. O’Connor would have valued as well.
The Texas 4000 team members compare our tiring and difficult journey to a patient’s battle with cancer. On days we don’t feel like riding anymore, we have to get back on our bikes and push through. Seventy days on a bicycle will undoubtedly make us sore, but when reminded of those who have it worse than we do, we find a way to keep pedaling. We ride for those who cannot. But the biggest difference between our team and cancer patients is that at the end of the day and at the end of the summer, we can get off of our bikes and rest. Our thoughts can go elsewhere and we have our health.
Though my mom was a large part of my decision to join Texas 4000 for Cancer, the other part was largely anticipatory in nature. With 1 in every 3 women affected with cancer in their lifetime and 1 in every 2 men, odds are some very close friends and family members will be affected in my lifetime. Whether it is my future daughter, husband, or grandchild, I ride in hope that one day I can tell them I helped find a cure.
If I were given a terminal prognosis tomorrow, I would still be riding my bicycle to Alaska, and I would have that much more motivation to do so. Not only is Texas 4000 the adventure of a lifetime, it also benefits the greater good as well as the body of cancer research. This ride brings hope to those who suffer. I can think of nothing more worthwhile than dedicating my final days to ensuring I had left my mark on the world. That perhaps others would suffer less because of my contributions.
I have deep respect for Mr. James O’Connor. If given the same prognosis, I can only hope I would keep such a profound perspective on life—and death. The financial assistance this scholarship would provide would allow me to pursue graduate school in a profession aimed at serving others. But whether a winner of this contest or not, this process has been a wonderful mental exercise and an opportunity to confront a topic so many would rather avoid. I believe we should all be reminded of the beauty and frailty of life every once in a while. Today, I ride for Rhio.