Reading Rhio O’Connor’s story about his battle with mesothelioma has been inspiring and thought provoking. What I found most powerful though was his drive to improve upon and expand existing methodologies and treatments. Mr. O’Connor was given a death sentence and few would have questioned him if he spent the last months of his life visiting with family and friends, then checking into Hospice. What followed his diagnosis couldn’t have been more different. I am at increased risk of another cancer diagnosis; if the unthinkable happens I will fight, explore, investigate, teach, study and push the boundaries of my diagnosis, like Rhio O’Connor did.
Mesothelioma is a rare type of cancer that occurs in the thin layer of cells lining the body’s internal organs. Not much is known about mesothelioma but researchers do recognize asbestos, which was commonly used in a variety of building applications, like insulation and as a fire-retardant, as a cause of mesothelioma (to learn more about mesothelioma visit www.survivingmesothelioma.com) . After diagnosis patients have few options depending on how advanced their cancer is. Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation are among the most common forms of treatment. With mesothelioma surgery usually isn’t necessary and the surgeon can instead use a needle to drain fluid and inject an antibiotic to keep the fluid from returning. Surgery can be effective but healthy tissue is removed along with cancerous tissue and the surgery site itself can be a source of pain and infection.
I am inspired by how Mr. O’Connor took matters into his own hands instead of giving up and letting his cancer consume him. When I was diagnosed with leukemia, I was six years old and wasn’t able to understand the severity of my diagnosis or the types of treatment available. It never occurred to me to question my disease or treatments. The only opportunity I had to influence my treatment was when I would have spinal taps. Rather than wait the additional 45 to 60 minutes for the topical cream to numb the puncture site I would have the tap done without the anesthetic so that I could get out of the clinic sooner and get back to school and friends. Looking back, now that I am a young adult, I understand the severity of my situation, my course of treatment, and most importantly, the blessing of my second chance at life.
There is a chance that I could relapse with my acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) or another form of cancer, as a result of my treatments. If that were to happen, I would take an active role in my treatment. I would start by consulting the doctors, clinicians, and researchers at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital because that is where I was successfully treated. I would want to know everything about my initial cancer and treatment history and whether or not any other patients who were treated with the same protocol as me had been diagnosed with another cancer.
I know that the leukemia I survived is characterized by an abnormal growth of white blood cells. ALL is most common among white males between the ages of 1 to 7, and leukemia accounts for 27 percent of cancer cases among children under the age of 20. The survival rate of ALL is 66.3 percent overall and in 2009 it had the second lowest death rate among other types of leukemia. With recent advances in treatments, however, most patients under 19 will go on to be five-year survivors. The survival rate for my any new diagnosis would be one of my first questions. I would also want to know what could have caused my new diagnosis. Unfortunately there is no definite known cause for ALL. In addition I would research all the types of treatment that are available for patients with my diagnosis. The treatment for most cancers depends on the patient’s age, type of cancer, and where the cancer cells were found. I would want to know exactly what protocols have been most successful in treating my diagnosis.
Beyond the familiar chemotherapy and radiation treatments there are new developments in stem cell treatments which are the infusion of healthy stem cells into your body, usually the bone marrow. While stem-cell transplants and certain surgeries are controversial and possibly risky, I would be open to exploring alternative treatment methods. There have been trials with medicines that are actually engineered to match the patient’s body and their genes. There are exciting developments in nano-technology in which small robots can actually be made to kill cancer cells.
There are some medications that will actually be ‘reactive’ to radiation and will only turn on when exposed to radiation treatments. Some of these medicines can actually be made to ‘stick’ to the cancer cells so you could receive an injection of the medicine and after a time of circulating through your body all of the drugs would be clinging to cancer cells. At that point you would be irradiated and the radiation would be drawn to the marked cells. Advances in medicine open the door to possibilities that were not even imagined a few years ago. I would have to be proactive and educated in my search for options. I would have to be willing to take any attractive opportunity.
Diet is another area that I would make a focus. The amount of highly refined and processed food in our diets is astounding. The ability to consume fresh foods prepared with a minimum of processing would be a priority. Eliminating refined sugars, added salt and preservatives, including more whole grains, fruit and vegetables would be critical.
My personal experience with childhood cancer has made me aware of opportunities to make a difference in other people’s lives. I started by volunteering as a junior counselor at Camp Friendship, a summer camp run by Cincinnati Children’s Hospital for children with cancer. From that early experience, I discovered that I have a lot to offer others.
\I volunteered for a week long mission trip to Give Kids the World Village. This is a non-profit organization for seriously ill children and their families that provides a special visit to Walt Disney World. My opportunity to serve those families was very significant to me because not so long ago I was one of those children. I was honored by this opportunity to give back. It was incredibly rewarding to bring some fun into their lives and put smiles on their young faces.
As a member of student government I initiated our first ever Cancer Awareness Week, the highlight of which was a blood drive where over 120 units of blood were donated in honor of cancer patients. This blood drive was the first time any of my classmates have given blood and I hope that this event will begin a lifetime of donations. To help the students understand the importance of blood donation and raise overall cancer awareness, my team invited guest speakers as well as students to share their personal stories. I also designed and sold t-shirts to raise funds for CancerFree KIDS. CancerFree KIDS is a foundation that raises money for pediatric cancer research. An additional fundraiser featured many students (donating money) to have their heads shaved in support of the children and adult patients who lose their hair due to their treatments.
Initially when I was asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I said a hematologist/oncologist because I felt compelled to give back and make a positive change in sick children’s lives. These last few years have made me understand that chemistry can play a much bigger role in our everyday lives than once thought. Chemicals, and how they interact with living organisms, how they are used day to day, can change the future of mankind. For this reason I will pursue a degree in Chemical Engineering with the intent to make a difference in the future health of mankind.
Statistics show that in the United States, about half of all men and a third of all women will face a cancer diagnosis at some point in their lives. I believe that my experience as a childhood cancer survivor has made me more knowledgeable about my health than the average person. More importantly, my diagnosis and survival have made me much more conscious about making healthy life style choices every day, I am not afraid to ask questions and speak up for myself. I hope that I never again have to face a cancer diagnosis, but I know that if I do, I will face my future with the same strength, courage and determination exemplified by James “Rhio” O’Connor.