Liu, Amanda – Surviving Mesothelioma

Liu, Amanda

The loss of Dr. Jain, my mentor and dear friend, to the ravages of cancer has drawn my interest to oncology. Cancer fundamentally entails uncontrolled cell growth arising from genetically altered and unstable cells. Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation aim to obliterate malignant cells, but invariably cause collateral damage. Cancer cells are difficult to target because they are akin to under cover traitors among healthy cells. Our best effort fighting the malignancy comes at a price—tumor remission at the expense of damage or loss of healthy cells.

Dr. Jain, the most challenging science professor I had at UC Berkeley, radiated brilliance, liveliness, and most of all genuine concern for his students. He once said to a class of 600 disheartened undergraduates, “Based on your dreams and aspirations, many of you one day will become a health care provider; I will be putting my family’s lives in your hands. So I want you to take from this course not just chemistry, but more importantly, COMPOSURE. When a completely novel problem presents itself, like on the recent midterm, never seen or discussed anywhere in your academic or professional career, I want you to stay calm and confident. Never lose your composure. Just give it your best shot. This is how medical professionals are expected to operate; this is how mature, rational adults function in the real world.”

After finishing his organic chemistry class, I joined his cancer research group, where I spent three years synthesizing compounds. Our goal was to preferentially deliver a radioactive agent to prostate cancer cells while sparing healthy cells. Hundreds of hours in research made me realize how efficient the human body is. The body harmonizes thousands of complex chemical reactions; a fraction of one such reaction would take me weeks to optimize in the laboratory. I realized that the human body is the ultimate cancer warrior; the compounds scientists strive to create are simply facilitators of self-healing processes.

Beyond the research, Dr. Jain led me in intellectual adventures and instilled in me an endless curiosity and high morale. I turned to him for guidance, inspiration, and counseling in areas far beyond my academic endeavors, even long after I graduated UC.

Dr. Jain received a position to teach at Harvard University. Even the distance did not compromise his guidance. He wrote me a recommendation letter and edited my personal statement when I applied to medical school. Unbeknownst to me at the time, he was diagnosed with late stage colon cancer after three years of misdiagnosed irritable bowel syndrome. Thanks to Dr. Jain’s support, I was admitted to Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine. Sadly, I never had the chance to share the good news with him.

Conventional cancer treatment has numerous successes. However, the long-term effects of treatments are underscored by terms such as “survival rate” and “remission.” Additionally, conventional treatments can induce debilitating and irreversible damage, or even secondary cancers. For example, radiation therapy caused irreversible damage of the skin, forcing a patient to stay bed-ridden in the hospital for two years; she lied in excruciating pain as an IV dripped heavy medications into her. She died after numerous skin grafts had failed. This once vibrant woman ended up frail, weak and without hope as she laid in bed in agony. This was the un-intended consequence of “tumor remission.”

How can we do better?

Dr. Still, the founder of Osteopathic medicine, had already laid down principles over 100 years ago that would view disease, health and the human spirit in a humanistic fashion. His first principal was that “the human body is a single unit, no part acts independently of the whole.” His second principal was that “structure and function are reciprocally related.” The third principal, “the human body has the inherent capacity for self-healing.” Lastly, “rational treatment is based on the previous principles.”

Dr. Still disseminated to his medical students that, “Anyone could find disease; the goal is to find health.” To define health, he emphasized that the structure inter-relates with function. Just listen to the intricate symphony your body orchestrates for one single breath—your rib cage expands with the contraction of inter-costal muscles, innumerable delicate single-membrane air sacs receive air from the atmosphere, and fine capillaries exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen. All in one breath. Such processes work seamlessly to sustain life. While human body performs this orchestral grandeur daily, decades of cancer research amounts to a few notes played by a single instrument.

Dr. Still believed that “the body possesses self-regulatory mechanisms—the inherent capacity to defend, repair, and remodel itself.” A healthy immune system is the best defense against malignant cells. In a healthy individual, apoptosis—programmed cell death—takes over when cells malfunction or become cancerous. With proper nutrition, relief of excess stress, and appropriate physical activity and rest, our immune cells are vigilant against the slightest deviation from healthy cells and speedily builds up an army against pre-cancer cells.

However, when the healing capacity of the body is compromised, diseases like cancer may ensue. Accounts of spontaneous cancer remission are numerous, which shows that the body can reverse cancer progression. As conventional treatment helps patients survive cancer, we aim to improve quality of life at every stage of cancer prognosis. To this end, we need to expand our anti-cancer toolbox to include ways of restoring whole-person health.

Osteopathic manipulative medicine (OMM) offers support for the human body and relief from side effects of conventional treatment modalities. For instance, post-surgical edema after a mastectomy causes tremendous pain and injures healthy tissue near the resection. A well-trained osteopathic physician can enhance lymphatic flow and reduce swelling. As the fluid starts to flow freely within bodily compartments, toxins are replaced with nutrients efficiently. Surgical wounds heal with less scar formation. OMM can also relieve nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy. The osteopathic physician can enhance gut health by inhibiting over-stimulated spinal nerves.

Moreover, the depression commonly associated with conventional therapies may lessen with cranial treatment. An osteopathic doctor can treat the skull and reduce impingement on cranial nerves. Since the body is a unit, rectifying the structure and improving the function of one system often has a profound impact on the overall health of the whole person, including body, mind and spirit. Normalizing one aspect of the body augments to the total capacity for self-repair and health-maintenance.

Anatomy and physiology support how most OMM procedures enhance health. Research in osteopathic medicine continues to explain the effectiveness of less-understood techniques. Similarly, some chemotherapeutic drugs eliminate malignant cells effectively, but we do not know how they work. Our collective knowledge shows us how little we know or understand the self-healing capacity of the human body.

James Rhio O’Connor realized his own body was the ultimate cancer warrior, so he strove to facilitate its self-healing processes. As a result, he enjoyed six years of quality life beyond his deadly diagnosis—mesothelioma, a neoplasm of the pleura (lining of lungs), commonly caused by exposure to asbestos. One can learn more about mesothelioma at Rhio did not “go on a cruise with his wife to enjoy his last year of life” as recommended by his doctor. Instead, he studied cancer literature intensively. He interviewed doctors, researchers, and patients on side effects and theories behind various treatment modalities.

Rhio embodied both rigorous education and intellectual flexibility. The advantage he had over most conventionally trained physicians was his focus on restoring health rather than destroying his tumor. He created a protocol to nourish his body and strengthen his mind. He consumed a healthy (primarily vegetarian) diet, fortified with vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, amino acids, enzymes, and herbs. He also practiced mind-body medicine. He understood that his emotions and perceptions affected his physical well being and vice versa. Attentive to both his psychological and physiological needs, Rhio maximized his body’s capacity to heal itself. As his health was restored, his innate immunity overcame the mesothelioma in an elegant and dignified manner.

If I was Dr. Jain’s physician, I would scrutinize his persistent bowel discomforts, and more importantly, I would check for colon cancer. When the malignancy was confirmed, I would deliver the diagnosis along with a rational treatment plan. The therapeutic regimen would evolve with and revolve around Dr. Jain, not his tumor. Guided by the osteopathic principles, I would use both conventional and alternative medicine to support his body’s self-healing capacity. I would think creatively to treat his body, mind and spirit. With endless curiosity and high morale, Dr. Jain and I would partner again—as patient and physician in an adventure to find and restore health.

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