“A gentle warrior with a fierce will to live”
A spring breeze across my face takes me back to that April afternoon when I was finally tall enough to ride the rollercoaster. It was “Pappy,” my late grandfather, who held my hand on that maiden run as the car click-clacked up the lift hill before plunging into a deep western Pennsylvania ravine.
The rumble of a school bus reminds me of that September morning as I watched my mother’s and father’s faces grow smaller and smaller while I peered out the window from my seat and traveled toward my first day of kindergarten.
Placing the key in the ignition can make me pause and reflect on the day I received my driver’s license, and how I returned my mother’s nervous stare with an ear-to-ear smile, letting her know with a single expression that I had passed the Department of Motor Vehicle’s driving test.
These precious memories inextricably link me to individuals such as James “Rhio” O’Connor. Researching his life and legacy, I discovered a man who believed in the power of one person to inspire hope amid dire circumstances. Gazing at his photo and visiting www.survivingmesothelioma.com, where I learned about mesothelioma (the rare form of cancer that finally took this courageous soul), I found a kindred spirit whose most cherished recollections were not of conquests that resulted in fame or financial rewards. In that caring face, I see a reflection of myself ─ someone who smiles warmly while remembering an autumn stroll with a sweetheart, finding that perfect gift for someone you hold dear, or the smell of fresh-cut grass on a clear summer morning.
As a 19-year-old sophomore at West Virginia University, I find myself at a fascinating and thrilling point in my life. I am old enough to record books full of wonderful memories, and young enough to know my biggest dreams have yet to come true. Despite this blissful optimism, the experience and illness that Mr. O’Connor endured stops me dead in my tracks. What if one day I went for a routine check-up, hoping I would not have to sit too long in the waiting room so I could get to the swimming pool, and walked out knowing that I have been diagnosed with a disease that doctors say will take my life within a year?
This staggering scenario becomes a reality for people all over the world every day. In my lifetime, I have seen malignant brain tumors claim an aunt and uncle. In both cases, radiation was used in a futile effort. Such treatment also was a dual-edged sword. The therapy that was meant to help them robbed them of strength, destroying healthy cells while killing only a portion of its intended target. However, since their deaths, I have read much about advances in how image-guided technology is being used with pinpoint accuracy to direct radiation at the cancerous tumor while sparing healthy tissue. Some of this evidence-based technology is now in use at the Hillman Cancer Center, which is located in my hometown of Pittsburgh.
This state-of-the-art equipment rotates around the patient while emitting thousands of beams that follow the exact contours of the tumor. The result is a precisely sculpted, three-dimensional radiation dose that covers the entire tumor. In addition, the preciseness of the delivery means that the length of the treatment session can be reduced. Faced with a similar diagnosis as my aunt and uncle or Mr. O’Connor, I would actively seek out advanced image-guided radiation therapy as a potential component in my battle plan against cancer.
Technology alone will not win the day. Like Mr. O’Connor, I would mount an aggressive campaign to find my own answers and wage war against a diagnosis of mesothelioma, the deadliest form of asbestos-related cancer. In his book, They said Months, I Chose Years: A Mesothelioma Survivor’s Story, Mr. O’Connor describes how he developed a regimen in which he consumed more than 100 supplements daily and eliminated sugar, hydrogenated oils and fried foods from his diet. Following the example set by Mr. O’Connor, I would not limit my cancer-fighting arsenal to a single weapon. The foods we eat, the cleaning products we use, the dyes, shampoos and conditioners we place on our hair and even the agents we select to care for our lawns can trigger illness and disease. As Mr. O’Connor as my mentor, I would arm myself with education and knowledge to embrace the steps we can take in all facets of our daily lives to reduce exposure to the toxins and carcinogens that surround us.
American society demands perfection. Our societal ultimatum is on display at the local grocery store. The apples, pears, cherries and other items in the produce section are mostly blemish-free. This perfection has been obtained through the use of chemicals and pesticides. The alternative ─ organic produce ─ may not always win the blue ribbon for appearance, but, as Mr. O’Connor taught us, it ranks as a necessary step to stop the destruction of cancer.
Irritated eyes, throat pain and headaches are only a few of the health problems caused by exposure to chemicals such as formaldehyde, a substance commonly found in room deodorizers, carpet backing, plastic grocery bags and cigarette smoke. Mr. O’Connor’s zest for life should teach us to nurture our green thumbs and place Boston ferns, dwarf date palms, and rubber plants in our homes because they have proven to be highly effective in counteracting the chemicals our bodies confront in many buildings.
Mr. O’Connor was a loving husband and not a man to shirk his share of the household chores. Those who take the time to research will discover weaponry that will give the dirtiest home an award-winning shine while eliminating exposure to hundreds of cancer-causing chemicals, as well as so-called “hormone disruptors” that can interfere with the body’s natural chemical messages, either by blocking or mimicking the actions of hormones.
Inexpensive, easy-to-use natural cleaning alternatives abound. For example, common baking soda cleans, deodorizes, softens water and scours. Lemon is effective against most household bacteria, while white vinegar cuts grease, removes mildew, odors, some stains and wax build-up.
Synthetic pesticides poison the environment. Some release compounds that become increasingly toxic as they break down in the environment. Some have an accumulative effect and are harmful far beyond the area they were originally applied. Some are longer lasting than others, and some don’t break down for a long time, remaining in the soil or water indefinitely. My father has noted that pesticides were often sprayed throughout his boyhood neighborhood to control mosquitoes. When I walk my dog, I pass signs that warn us that a well-manicured lawn has been treated with chemicals by a landscaper. Today, there are “green” alternatives to these chemical solutions. Some environmentally aware homeowners, in the true spirit of Mr. O’Connor, engage in the preferred method of biological pest control by buying praying mantises to populate their yards. Although highly unusual in appearance, the praying mantis possesses a voracious appetite for the grubs that damage lawns and the annoying insects that ruin backyard picnics.
My dreams include earning my college degree, having my father walk me down the aisle in a church illuminated by warm sunlight to a man I love with my whole heart, and one day bringing my own children into this world. To have these dreams taken away by such a cryptic scientific concept as “cancer,” just simply does not sound real to me, nor did it sound real to Mr. O’Connor. A clinician in a white lab coat telling me there is no hope and I have no chance to live to see these dreams come true because of a destructive force growing inside me would be a fact I would simply deny, as did Mr. O’Connor. Although this courageous man is a stranger to me, his story makes me recognize that we share a powerful trait: the refusal to give up on the dream of living a fulfilling and beautiful life. Cancer may be a powerful force to be reckoned with, but Mr. O’Connor has taught me that the battle can be won with heart, courage, desire to never surrender, and an unquenchable thirst to seek out the answers on our own.