Lim, Sanghee | Surviving Mesothelioma

Lim, Sanghee

Beating Mesothelioma: The Story of James “Rhio” O’Connor

Cancer is a word that brings fear to the most stout-hearted of men and women, and more often than not, it is a difficult experience for both the doctors to present the news to their patients, as it is a traumatic moment for the patients on the receiving end. Nevertheless, thanks to the courage of countless patients and medical professionals willing to dedicate their lives and very bodies to the search for a cure, several forms of cancer have become largely treatable, and indeed, it is not uncommon to hear of complete remissions – where no trace of the cancer remains in the patient’s body – lasting for decades. Unfortunately, there are types of cancer that still remain mostly untreatable, in which the only aid that conventional medicine can provide is that of palliative treatment, so as to make the patient’s remaining time as comfortable as possible. Mesothelioma belongs to this dangerous group of malignant cancers, especially if it is discovered in its later stages, which is a type of cancer specific to the mesothelium highly resistant to conventional treatment methods, such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy. (Mesothelioma Information) Over 2,000 cases of mesothelioma are diagnoses every year in the United States alone – and nine years ago, James “Rhio” O’Connor, sixty-one years old at the time, was one of those 2,000 new cases in the October of 2001 (Mesothelioma Information). But despite the difficult news, Mr. O’Connor refused to give up even in the face of his diagnosis, educating himself, adopting a rigorous nutritional regime, and relying on his new-found sense of spirituality. The end result was that he lived for an additional seven and a half years – when his original prognosis was that he had less than a year to live. His story is one of the triumphs of the indomitable human soul, and one of personal inspiration for an aspiring oncologist.

To understand the story of Mr. O’Connor, then, it becomes necessary to understand what cancer is – and more specifically, what factors contribute to a particularly malignant cancer like mesothelioma. Cancer, as defined by Dr. Coleman of John Hopkins University, is a “cell that grows out of control.” (Coleman 35). Essentially, cancer is a proliferation of cells that grow out of control, which form large clusters commonly referred to as tumors, which then impede the development and regulation of other vital organs. Mesothelioma, then, is a type of cancer in which the cells in the tissue lining the lungs or the abdominal cavity, called the pleura and the peritoneum, respectively (Mesothelioma Information). These areas are collectively referred to as the mesothelium – hence the cancer of this area is called mesothelioma. One of the most widely recognized causes for mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos dust – which has led to several legislative regulations being imposed on workplaces to maintain acceptable levels of asbestos dust, in addition to providing workers with adequate protection to reduce risk of exposure. Nevertheless, new cases of mesothelioma from past exposures continue to appear every year – a fact that is aggravated by the fact that mesothelioma is a rapidly fatal disease (Antman and Aisner 32). It was this rapidly fatal cancer, then, that Mr. O’Connor faced in the fall of 2001. The cause: exposure to asbestos dust when he was younger.

Mr. O’Connor, however, did something that most patients would not even think of doing: he rejected his oncologist’s advice to “get his affairs in order” and enter hospice care (James Rhio O’Connor). Instead, Mr. O’Connor began a fight against mesothelioma that would span the remainder of his life, by the end of which he was fondly referred to as “Mr. Meso.” Mr. O’Connor extensively researched all that he could concerning cancer and mesothelioma, determined that his ignorance of the disease would not become his undoing – that his knowledge would aid him in his bid to outlast the cancer. He began a regimen of more than one hundred supplements a day – all formulated on the basis of advice from clinicians and medical journals. He changed his diet, practiced self-discipline, and became a more spiritual person. In short, instead of letting the crippling prognosis destroy him, Mr. O’Connor used it instead to make it an opportunity for personal growth – with which he not only benefited himself, but also the lives of many others with his testimony and his example of an unconquerable spirit. When he passed away in the July of 2009, then, he did not lose his fight against mesothelioma. Instead, he passed away, a true hero, a true victor – having outlived his initial prognosis by more than half a decade, and having changed the lives of countless others with his work supporting other mesothelioma survivors (James Rhio O’Connor). Mr. O’Connor beat mesothelioma.

If I was faced with a similar predicament to that of Mr. O’Connor, I hope that I will be able to follow in his footsteps – but in a slightly different way. I am currently an international student enrolled in Boston University’s Seven-year Medical Education program, in conjunction with the Boston University School of Medicine. As such, in addition to changing my lifestyle to better fight the cancer with regular exercise and healthier eating, I would continue studying in my program, and would do all that I could do to complete my seven years of education, culminating in an M.D. This process of medical education, I believe, would be essentially a simultaneous education about how to better face the cancer diagnosis. This is because I would learn more about how my body functions, and what medical options are available for me on the cutting edge of education at a research institution such as Boston University. Moreover, I want to believe that even if I should face a dire cancer prognosis, I will outlast it to become a medical professional, so that I might serve in the capacity of a doctor for as long as my body will allow me – doing all that I can to not only benefit myself, but also others. I would most likely become more involved in my spiritual life as a Christian, from which I already derive the strength and faith to try my best every day, even if I am separated from my family by the Pacific Ocean. Like Mr. O’Connor, I would choose years, instead of months, so that my dreams of becoming an oncologist are fulfilled no matter what obstacles stand in my way. I believe that cancer should never cripple us, but instead lead us to become greater and nobler than ever before – as it was the case for Mr. O’Connor.

In conclusion, Mr. O’Connor’s story is one of inspiration for both medical professionals and patients. For the medical professionals, including aspiring medical professionals, Mr. O’Connor is the epitomic archetype of the resolute, informed, and incredibly brave patient whose very existence provides hope, especially in such a bleak and often dark area of medicine like oncology – that survival is not a far-off possibility, but something that patients and medical professionals can work towards, together, even if it is in alternative methods. For patients, Mr. O’Connor is proof that even dire cancer prognoses can be overcome, and that in the time remaining, it is always possible to do more good, and become an even nobler person than before – that cancer need not cripple a patient, but instead empower a patient to greater feats of courage, in which living life to the fullest every single day becomes a possibility. For me, on a personal level, people like Mr. O’Connor are the reason why I wish to pursue oncology. Oncology, more commonly referred to as cancer medicine, is often labeled a hopeless, dark, depressing field of medicine, in which bleak images of hospice care and desperate prognoses dominate public perception of it – but the example of Mr. O’Connor clearly shows the contrary. Oncology can be a medical field filled with hope, life, and an appreciation for human life that can be difficult to find in the frenzied popular media portrayals of emergency rooms and intensive care units – a field in which both the doctors and the patients become more human with every passing day. Naturally, the ultimate goal of oncology is the eradication of cancer; but while we fight on for cures, I believe that it is important to not forget that cancer also holds the potential for personal growth and discovery on various levels – as long as we do not give up. Mr. James O’Connor showed that through the example of his life, and so, even today, countless patients and medical professionals fight on, that tomorrow might be – in the mantra of the American Cancer Society – a day with more birthdays.

References 1. Antman, Karen, and Joseph Aisner, eds. Asbestos-Related Malignancy. Orlando: Grune and Strattson,, 1987. Print. 2. Coleman, Norman. Understanding Cancer. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2006. Print. 3. “James Rhio O’Connor.” Surviving Mesothelioma: A Patient’s Guide. Web. 25 Feb. 2010. <https://survivingmesothelioma.com/rhiooconnor.cfm>. 4. “Mesothelioma Information | Treatment and Symptoms of Mesothelioma.” Surviving Mesothelioma: A Patient’s Guide. Web. 25 Feb. 2010. <https://survivingmesothelioma.com/basics.cfm>.

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