All of us are “terminal patients.” The issue is never how or when we will die, but how and when we will live. In the case of James “Rhio” O’Connor, when he was told he was going to die in a year, he had the advantage of a courageous spirit and was motivated to action by his “terminal” diagnosis of a virulent form of cancer, pleural mesothelioma. To learn more about this form of cancer, its diagnosis, treatment, and survivors, click on www.survivingmesotheliaoma.com. In Rhio’s case, he outlived his prognosticated death for many years as a result of his willingness to act.
A person whose life provides inspiration, hope, and guidance to others can be said to have truly lived. Such a person was Rhio. His book, while focusing on his response to the particular diagnosis of a cancerous condition that resulted from his exposure to asbestos, explores broader issues significant to all of us, whether we have been formally diagnosed as “terminal,”or not.
A wise man, working in his garden, was asked, “What would you do right now if you knew that you were going to die tomorrow.” He responded, I would finish mulching these rose bushes.” The business of life is simplicity itself. It is the process of learning how to use each moment. I will tell you a story.
I am a mother of seven, who, at the age of fifty two, will complete my undergraduate work this spring and enter graduate school in Traditional Chinese and Western Medicine this fall. My youngest son, adopted as a newborn, was a person who learned the business of life early. He was a prodigy, playing the piano well enough at six to accompany his first grade class Christmas concert. He was not athletic, and a little pudgy as a child, but he grew into a handsome, tall, talented young man. At age thirteen he decided he wanted to be slim and well conditioned, so he began to do what he needed to do to become slim and buff. At that same age he and his seventh grade English teacher conspired to revive a music program that had, for lack of funding, been non-existent in the intermediate school and high school in the small town where we lived. At the beginning he was the only boy in a choir of thirteen, the first singing group in either school in fourteen years. There were no bands. When he died, at age seventeen, both the intermediate school and the high school had choirs of forty voices, both had uniformed marching bands, and the choral group he was in had toured Germany and Austria. He didn’t accomplish everything by himself, but he, and his teacher, were the motivating forces. His funeral attracted well over three thousand mourners in a town of six thousand.
My son was never told he had a terminal condition, but he, like Rhio, lived as though his time was precious. My son died, unexpectedly, in the arms of a co-star as he was rehearsing for the lead of “Shoeless Joe,” in a community production of “Damn Yankees.” He had undiagnosed Marfan’s Syndrome, a heart defect that can cause death unexpectedly, or not. In his case, he left me with an undying sense of gratitude for having been given the precious privilege of his life. I suspect that those who knew Rhio personally have a sense of that same gratitude.
Could anyone imagine that Rhio’s story would not motivate me. Could anyone imagine that my son, David’s, story would not motivate me. If I were told I would be dead in a year from a terminal condition, I would do what I am doing now. I would prepare for graduate school in a field where I know I will provide help to my brothers and sisters. No man is an island. We are all brothers and sisters. Rhio’s story, David’s story, and the stories of courageous souls who have achieved, endured, and loved, motivate me to write my own story in the hearts of my brothers and sisters. I would continue mulching my rose bushes, in the hope that, when I left this world, my companions on this journey would have blooms to smell and beauty to see.
I have had experience with health problems. Fifteen years ago I had surgery to remove a prolactinoma, a benign tumor on the pituitary gland. It was removed successfully, but with some unfortunate side effects, including the loss of my body’s ability to produce human growth hormone. I learned everything I could about HGH. I learned everything I could about bromocriptine and cabergoline, the two drugs, one of which I must take twice weekly, that control prolactin secretion. I learned how to structure my life to deal with the weight gain, loss of estrogen production, potential osteoporosis, and other effects of my condition.
My own health problems, my desire to prolong my life, with the highest level of quality possible, and my desire to offer the same opportunities to others who will become my patients has led me to enter college, the first member of my family ever to do so, and to obtain the graduate school education that will enable me to serve others. I chose Eastern medicine, with a subsidiary education in Western medicine, because, I believe, as Rhio did, that the economics of Western medicine are a significant factor, maybe the most significant factor, in limiting the treatment options available to most Western physicians. As Rhio noted in his book, the FDA does not allow all potential cancer treatments, or, for that matter, treatments for other conditions, to reach the market. I believe that Western medicine is of great value. But I prefer the concept of treating the patient rather than the condition, which, as Rhio suggested, is that, “once the patient is strengthened or given what is missing then the patient’s body can manage the cancer itself through the immune system and other biological processes.”
Having read countless nutrition books, treatment books, and stories of those who chose to fight illness, and having searched the internet, I am sure that, if I were diagnosed with a terminal, or non-terminal condition, I would take the Rhio O’Conner approach, as he dealt with mesothelioma, the Lance Armstrong approach, as he dealt with testicular cancer, the Ken Wilbur approach, as he dealt with the cancer in his beloved Treya, or the Norman Cousins approach, as he attempted to cure his illness with laughter. I would explore all alternatives, as I have in the case of my own condition. I would keep an open mind. I would not expect miracles, but I would not reject that possibility. I would incorporate as much information as possible in the development of my own protocols. I would retain an optimistic attitude, tempered with reality. I would be strict in adhering to the protocols that I developed, with as much input as possible. And I would not stop learning until I drew my last breath. I have learned from my own experience that the acquisition of education and information is one of the most empowering endeavors one can pursue.
First and foremost, I would refine my priorities. I would try to remember that the only moment I really have is this one. I would do my best to use my time wisely. I would love. I would try to develop greater faith and confidence myself, and I would try to inspire it in others. I would worry less and dance more.
As someone said, “If I get out of this life alive —- I will be surprised.” We all realize we are going to die. Life is a process of living with hope while dealing with uncertainty. That uncertainty is intensified when cancer or any other terminal condition is encountered. However, the rules remain the same, whether one is perfectly healthy or terminal. Those that are terminal, as Rhio was, can inspire us with their resilience, resoluteness, courage, and optimism. They can inform us by providing a template for dealing with our own challenges. But, primarily, their stories affect us, by showing the value of action when dealing with life. Rhio survived because he acted. More than that, he thrived because he acted.
All of us deal with the reality of ultimately dieing. We may anticipate our departure from this life because we have been diagnosed “terminal,” or our death may be a surprise. In either case, we have this moment. What a waste it is if we do not savor it, use it, and act within it. The lesson of Rhio’s life is one all of us must learn, if we are to be happy. Empower yourself by taking responsibility for your life and act in such a way as to be of value to yourself and others.