My mother was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. When she told me her “news,” I just couldn’t believe it was happening again. In my family, it’s kind of an old story.
I’ll admit it up front. I’m a bit of a control freak. I schedule my time meticulously in an agenda book that I take everywhere with me. I like to plan ahead. I make lists. I organize.
But cancer? It’s not exactly something I would pencil in between nine-thirty and eleven.
Cancer has been an unwelcome visitor in my life for as long as I can remember––grandparents, family friends, neighbors, teachers. When I was younger, discussions about medications and prognoses always happened behind a closed bedroom door. But this time around, I wanted to know everything about my mother’s treatment. Maybe then, I could stop feeling like my family’s life was spinning out of control. I rushed over to my computer, fired up the search engine, and scrolled through article after article about a disease that I’d been longing not to worry over again.
Phrases jumped out at me from the screen. Things like “chances of survival,” and “incurable” filled me with dread and disbelief.
That’s probably why, when I heard about Rhio O’Connor’s story, I was incredibly inspired by his perseverance, his successes, and especially his willingness to face his disease head-on. Diagnosed with mesothelioma––a rare form of cancer in the layer of cells lining the body’s internal organs¬¬––and given a year to live, he breathed hope into what seemed like a hopeless situation.
At first, I was completely set on the advice of the doctor. With their white lab coats, charts, and framed medical school diplomas, it’s hard for me not to trust them. They always seem to know what they’re talking about. Infection? Here are the antibiotics. Rash? Oh, I’ll give you some ointment for that. But what happens when treatment isn’t as clear-cut? Like Rhio, my mom wanted to know not about chemotherapy, but about alternative options. I thought that it was pointless––all this talk about eating organic food and drinking green tea and wheatgrass juice. It seemed like a joke. But no one was laughing.
And then I thought, if I were the one in this situation, I––like my mother and Rhio O’Connor––would want to know as much as I could find out about every way in which I could fight this disease that has taken so many loved ones and puzzled generations of physicians.
If I were faced with the hardship of a cancer diagnosis, it might be difficult to rise above the flood of grief and shock. But people like Rhio would encourage me not to simply accept that my problem had no remedy. Instead, I would take a proactive, rather than reactive stance on the situation. It’s easy to feel alone with one’s problems. But cancer has affected so many lives––each patient and each survivor has information to offer about his or her experiences. That experience shouldn’t go to waste. Support from others who are fighting cancer or who’ve beaten it cannot only be invaluable to the heart and soul, but also in terms of advice about treatment options. I would also enlist the help of my family and friends not only for emotional reasons, but also to be my advocates in the doctor’s office––people who can come with me to ask questions and help me make decisions. It’s easy to be overwhelmed when dealing with something like this alone. But you don’t have to be.
It’s also important to keep in mind that each individual’s body reacts to the cancer as well as the treatment in different ways. Certain therapies may work better than others for various people. They can be combined and complemented by each other. I would weigh the benefits of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. But there has also been research conducted that suggests that these conventional methods can do more harm than good. Chemotherapy weakens the immune system and kills healthy cells as well as cancer cells. Surgery and radiation can cause other harmful side effects. Some also believe that invasive surgery is unnecessary in certain situations.
For liability reasons, many doctors are unwilling to prescribe anything other than the methods of treatment already widely accepted in the medical community: drugs, surgery, and radiation. There is also the issue of pharmaceutical companies looking to make profits.
So I would also look to alternative medicine in addition to the conventional. Through detoxification, changes in diet, and other more holistic methods, some say that cancer can be fought off simply by nourishing the body and building up the immune system. There are lots of opinions out there. The point is not to choose one method over the other, but to sufficiently research in order to make an informed decision and incorporate several treatments if necessary.
When a doctor tells you or a loved one that you have an “incurable” disease, it’s easy to believe that they’re right…to just go on living in the time that you have left. But I have since learned better than to blindly accept the opinions of others. I would take responsibility for my own health and my own life. Because ultimately, the patients’ best interests lie within themselves.
And Rhio’s story taught me that an individual does have a say in his or her own fate.