Rhio O’ Conner was a stranger to me. I had never met him but I feel that in some ways, the stories of our lives are linked because we both shared the same experience; an experience that millions of people around the world are familiar with. Cancer is not something that is removed from my life. Though I have never experienced it myself I know its face well. I have looked cancer in the face from a different angle than Rhio but that doesn’t mean that I don’t understand how this disease transforms a human both emotionally and physically. When someone is diagnosed with cancer the focus is on them, as it should be, but cancer does not just affect that one person. It affects everyone around it. My own personal history started when I was six when my paternal grandmother died of breast cancer. At the time I had no idea what had happened; all I remember of that experience was sitting in my father’s lap, hearing him tell me that grandma was not going to be coming over anymore because she had passed away. I remember crying but to this day I don’t know whether that was because I was sad that she died (did I even know what death meant at that point?) or that she wasn’t going to stop by and bring me presents anymore like she always did.
My second encounter with cancer was through my mother. During my freshman year of high school she was diagnosed with stage one breast cancer. It’s currently in remission. The details of exactly what happened during that time are becoming foggy as it fades to a distant memory, but the pain and sheer terror of the experience still cuts as deeply as the day that my parents told me she had cancer. I did not cry right then. In fact, I was extremely calm, because I knew it was coming. I just asked some basic questions. How far along is it? What is the course of treatment? It wasn’t even until the following day, upon seeing my best friend in the morning at school that I broke down and didn’t stop crying until several hours later. From that day on it was stifled sobs in the nighttime as my family just wouldn’t talk about what was happening. Needless to say, this changed my family dynamic. I used to fight with my mom a lot; she was someone who was unhappy and angry all the time. After the diagnosis, her whole outlook on life changed. She wasn’t as angry with the world anymore and she smiled more. She became my best friend and to this day still is.
People say that when Cancer or serious illness strikes, it causes you to look at the world in a whole new way. This doesn’t just happen to the people living with the illness. This also happens to the people that are stuck loving the person with the illness with all their hearts, for you hurt every time they do and all you can do is watch. These people’s world view changes as well. Because of my mother’s cancer, I’m not as afraid to live my life how I WANT IT. I used to be lonely at school and put homework and grades above everything else. Not anymore. Whether you get an A or a B on test only matters so much; homework isn’t as important as taking care of yourself and feeling good. I wake up every day thankful that the people I love are still here. And I’ve also learned that I can do amazing things in my life, go amazing places, see amazing things, but they won’t mean anything if I’m not sharing them with the people I love.
A horrible disease taught me how to live my life and for that I am thankful every day that my mom got sick. I’m thankful that my family went through what it did because we came out stronger, better, more open and loving people then we previously were. Though I didn’t know Rhio O’ Conner, I can tell from how he faced his situation that he experienced the transformative power of cancer as well. Rhio O’ Conner was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a deadly form of cancer that causes the protective lining that covers organs to invade that organ and damage them. He outlived his one year prognosis by more than six years. Rhio’s story shows that sometimes the will to live is more powerful than something physically tangible like a virus. It is not how you go about living your life every day, but how you act in that one moment, that defines what kind of person you are. Rhio’s will was as strong as my mother’s.
While some people become paralyzed by the news of cancer, my mother was not. Both she and my father read and reread everything they could get their hands on. My mom ended up opting for a lumpectomy, radiation treatment, and hormones. She decided to go with western medicine for the initial treatment, it would treat the symptoms of her cancer, removing what had already grown within her body, but she also wanted to treat the cause. This is where her life changed dramatically. After she was diagnosed she started seeing an acupuncturist. While simultaneously treating the cancer infested part of her body with western medicine, she treated her entire body as well. Her eating changed, she stopped using toxic cleaning chemicals, she started Yoga, meditation, relaxing when she wanted to instead of when her body said she needed to. But above all else she started to smile more. She was more open with me, more loving. We started saying ‘I love you’ every time one of us left the house or we got off the phone with each other. She called her parents more and read for pleasure instead of work. For the first time, she was actually living her life the way she wanted.
You would think someone would get mad at the world for giving them something as terrible as cancer, but she was actually happier, because instead of focusing on the negative, she focused on the good things that were in this world and she looked on them as if she has never seen them before. This is how I would approach cancer if I ever got it. I would approach it with a will to live, a smile on my face and love in my heart. Because whether I have one month left or twenty years, I will live my life with purpose and joy and I will never forget what my mother taught me: That love really is the most important thing.