Every moment we are living inside our bodies. Magestic systems, these fleshy forms and physical structures we inhabit are wonderfully complicated, delicate things. We use these bodies to discover our world and make sense of what else happens around us. We live inside our bodies, in an environment even more wonderfully complicated, where other people — people like us — are also living lives with their own viewpoints on this human experience.
There’s much to be said about the human body. From time to time, it can rebel against itself. Cancer, that trojan horse of a pernicious plague, has been a feature of the human experience since there was a single creature in this world which we could call human. It’s no surprise, then, that there are reams of stories of the afflicted, the survivors, the fighters, and the battles surrounding this ancient malady. The fights all end differently, as fights often do, but they all start the same way: somewhere, inside our bodies, a tiny cell, a cell of our own body — whether skin, lung, intestine, breast, or anything — it becomes something new. That single cell multiplies, grows, branches out, and becomes, itself, multiple. It latches onto other cells in our body, takes what it can, and keeps moving. That is the nature of cancer: a piece of us, but an opportunistic hyena.
Rhio O’Connor had a problem, and the doctors told him it was cancer. Years before he turned 61, he was exposed to asbestos — a useful mineral, but one with grave handling risks. The asbestos triggered cells in his lungs to become cancerous. The cancer, pleural mesothelioma, was attacking his spine and would soon move on to the rest of his body. He was given one year to live. There was nothing to do but wait, they said. The opportunistic hyenas probably appeared to have him cornered.
Being outnumbered in a battle is one thing, but one can always draw on wit, strategy, and determination when numbers fail. Rhio took his situation and made the absolute most of it, drawing on the ancient history of cancers and treatments, biological treatments, and scientific reasoning. Inspired by life, and determined to live, he beat the doctors’ expectations, and he lived a fuller, happier life than if he had taken the path of no resistance. He lived over seven times as long as the original prognosis gave him. He fought the battle, and he beat all the expectations of length of life and quality of life.
Mr. O’Connor’s story is one small piece of the human experience. Personally, I know a few other other people who have been told that they live with cancer, who have been told that it has progressed to their lungs and their lymph nodes and their bones, who have been told that the hyenas are circling ever closer. Two people very close to me, within the past ten years, have been diagnosed with late-stage cancer, stages of cancer which very usually end quickly with death. In both cases, the news caused them to look for more answers and treatments besides chemotherapy and radiation therapy. It’s a complicated disease, and there is bound to be more to it than just a handful of therapies. By researching the ways other humans have treated cancer, they each came up with their own solutions. All of these solutions involved hoping for more and fighting for it. They downed extracts of rare plants, they sipped bittersweet juices, and they explored the existing news and historical knowledge about cancer. They, above all, kept fighting.
If I received this diagnosis, I can’t predict exactly how I would feel or what would happen next. There is a good chance, based on the genetics of my body, that I will get some form of cancer in my life. This is a fact that I have had time to live with and absorb. If that time comes, if the hyenas start circling, I have promised myself to put quality of life before quantity of life, but to never give up the chance to live more of this life I have found so interesting and beautiful. I will fight the cancer, armed with knowledge, hope, and determination. Rhio’s experience, the experiences of those close to me, they all say the same thing: work it out and don’t give up.
The first stage, acceptance, is one of the most startling. It seems to come from nowhere: you have cancer in your body, you’ve had cancer for a bit of time, and, I’m sorry, but there is a good chance you might die from it. Might. That single word should be the thrust of the next move. I might die, but what if I might live? How might I live, how might I survive? Mightily, the struggle begins with a call to arms and a call to learn. The first stage of living with cancer starts with a sneak attack, but it will end with a determined attitude, a steady focus on discovering what it really means to live with cancer and survive. Education, asking doctors for more advice and information, researching the different chemical and biological angles of attack that are the subject of hundreds of thousands of research studies, this information becomes useful knowledge when you attach it to the personal diagnosis of “you have cancer.”
When you accept that you have the cancer, you begin to reach out to friends. This battle changes things: you have new friends. Other survivors, people with diagnoses that might be similar, or maybe not, and who might have longer to live, or maybe not. This wonderfully complicated life has given all of us ever more complicated and nuanced experiences and paths of life, and these differences make life beautiful. By reaching out to people in similar circumstances — but different — we can become stronger, more balanced persons. Embracing each other, and sharing out experiences so that we might all live better, that is the secret to surviving any malady.
Rhio’s experience with cancer is one brick in our shared structure of human experience. May it be enlightening to all of us in our own struggles.
For more information on Mr. O’Connor’s life with mesothelioma, please visit www.survivingmesothelioma.com