Cancer has touched the lives of so many of us. It takes our mothers and fathers, our husband and wives, our friends and comrades, even our children. A cancer diagnosis stops one’s life in its tracks. Not only your life, but the lives of those around you. What does one do, where does one start, how long will one live? Questions swirl in the air, invading our dreams and gripping us in fear; all when facing this disease we’ve named “cancer.”
Just a few decades ago it often felt there was nowhere to turn. So much was unknown. Finding others facing a similar disease was difficult to do. The lack of information was even more frightening, debilitating and often lead to improper treatments. Today, the world is at our fingertips. Our illnesses are diagnosable; our diseases potentially curable. All this in the modern world–the world of technology. Researchers work around the clock seeking cures, developing new treatments and racing to save lives. We can immediately find and reach out to experts, to those who can help, to those who understand. Countless researchers, doctors, hospitals and treatment centers are standing by, all right there at our disposal, all easily found with the click of a mouse.
My husband’s grandfather died when he was in his 30’s, leaving behind his wife and teenage son. The diagnosis; consumption. Consumption, the word so often listed on death certificates, the “catch-all” for the unknown. He was a researcher, a chemist; working in the development of new chemicals–pipetting them by mouth in simple glass beakers. A practice that continued long after his death, without pause. Is it not so different from the laborer, the contractor, the factory work, all performing their assigned tasks to support their families. People just like you and I, unwittingly encountering toxins in the environment. We breath deep as we labor hard, quickening the absorption. One may die young and fast, or one may not know the dangers lurking within for another thirty or fifty years. Such is the case with mesothelioma. Such was the experience of James “Rhio” O’Connor.
Due to exposure to asbestos, Rhio was diagnosed with this form of cancer which affects the exterior membrane of the body’s internal organs. The symptoms of mesothelioma are similar to other ailments and it is often difficult to detect and diagnose this disease. Rhio was given only a year to live, yet he fought this disease and won for more than six. Rhio not only worked side by side with his doctors to seek treatments, but he studied and self-supplemented those treatments as well. He assembled countless lists of questions, researched dietary benefits, sought out alternative licensed clinicians and various cancer therapies. These all bought him precious time, allowing him not only to help himself, but others too facing this terrible disease.
My good friend Pamela just lost her life to cancer. She had a husband, two young boys and had recently reentered college to change her career from banking to medicine. She was happier than I’d ever seen her before. Pamela was embracing life, active in her church and busy raising her boys and providing them with a loving home. A cancer diagnosis was received in March and she was gone the following January. The cancer was fought with every ounce of will in her body and with her laptop at her side, researching and seeking specialists in the field of the cancer she was facing, bile duct or cholangiocarcinoma. Pamela and her husband traveled to several major cities to receive (and endure) any and all treatments that could be found, often times being turned away due to the advanced stage of the disease. Her medical bills closed-in rapidly on her insured lifetime cap, yet she would not be thwarted in her quest for a cure. She took her last family vacation in November, traveling to Disney. She made it through Christmas and her oldest son’s 7th birthday, but her body ultimately could not endure what her will sought to conquer. Pamela was taken in the prime of her life, despite the good life she had lived.
Cancer can happen to anyone at any time. It can be a result of our environment, such is the case with asbestos exposure, one of the leading causes for mesothelioma. Cancer can occur with no known source or cause.
Five years ago, after losing my mother to cancer, I had decided should I face the same fate that I would do nothing. I absolutely would not even begin to endure the surgeries, the false hope, the hours of chemotherapy treatments followed by days laden with nausea. I would not do it. I could not face it. I would live life normally and suffer in silence for as long as I possibly could. Would this, however, be fair? Would it be fair to my family, would it be fair to myself? Both Pamela and Rhio have made me rethink this plan. Their courage and their active involvement, their perseverance to seek and receive treatments, their hope for the cure–these are the greatest inspirations of all.
I now think that I would research my illness, utilizing support sites such as Cancer Monthly, Inc. where I could learn from, and reach out to, others dealing with cancer as they discuss their treatments and share their experiences. I’d look to medical journals and to on-line research. I would find myself nestled in quiet library corners, scouring books for new ideas, as well as old. I too, like Pamela, would both listen to trusted doctors and would travel to unfamiliar research centers and hospitals for treatment, second opinions and medical advice. I would not, however, quest for treatments lined with gold and promises which lacked substance and science. I hope that I could differentiate the rational from the irrational when it came to possible cures. I would readily embrace gene therapy treatments and am excited about the promise this alternative presents.
In my pursuit of a cure, however, if I found little improvement, or if my condition worsened, I would hope that I’d be able to step back from the science and balance the realities of life and death. To step outside the box our physicians so often place us in. A box walled with scheduled treatments, set programs of grueling chemotherapy rounds, radiation and surgeries, all of which historically yield little results for cancers such as mesothelioma. I would seek guidance from above as to when to simply let my body rest. I would hope that I could take that last trip to Hawaii without guilt of missed treatments. To find that perfect balance between the perceived urgency of treatment vs. the quality of my remaining life. I would seek the strength to choose the time to do nothing without guilt or perceived weakness, yet to face the inevitable knowing I’d done all that I could do.
By working to make ourselves well, we help others. Every victory–should it be one day or six years–is worth the fight. We will find a cure and we will find it together. We must be mindful too though that the fight not be all consuming, that we must work to balance intense treatments and programs with time for body and soul. To spend time with our families, to take that trip to Mexico if the opportunity presents itself, to live life with no regrets and to the fullest.
For further information on mesothelioma and for ways that you too can help find a cure for this disease which affects approximately 2,000 people in the United States alone each year, please visit www.survivingmesothelioma.com. May we all work together to defeat this disease. May we one day face a cancer-free world. With research, perseverance, funding and science all working hand-in-hand, we can make this our reality.