Oliveira, Miguel | Surviving Mesothelioma

Oliveira, Miguel

Living with cancer

Michael had been feeling an occasional shortness of breath, among other symptoms. He woke up completely worn out, with his head throbbing in acute pain; as he dragged himself out of bed, his chest excruciatingly weighed heavy upon him as if it had been nailed to the mattress. Every small amount of air he breathed struck his lungs with a gasping intensity. He felt his thorax being chocked in a tortuous embrace, as if being pulled inwards. After weeks feeling the same agonizing symptoms, his wife finally convinced Michael to see a doctor. Hospitals, clinics, or any type of medical facility for that matter greatly annoyed him, but his condition forced him to go, and so he did.

Numerous tests were conducted and hours of waiting in medical centers had passed. Days after the first appointment, Michael found himself in the same clinic. The room’s intense smell of medicine whirled down through his head in a sort of nauseated swoop. A faintly aloof doctor stood in front of him, pointing at an x-ray attached to a lighted board with one hand and holding the results of Michael’s biopsy with the other. The unfortunate patient had been diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma and given less than a year to live. At first, he was assailed by a feeling of incredulous indifference. “It can’t be happening to me,” he thought. The concept of death seemed so distant to him, so impossible. But as the doctor announced his fateful condition and explained its implications, Michael gradually sensed a feeling of rushing fear and hopelessness. It indeed was happening to him, he dreadfully realized. He attempted to listen to the medic, involuntary muttering some frail “ok” and “I see” lines, but he couldn’t bring himself to pay attention. Finally, they shook hands, Michael thanked the doctor and the doctor mumbled something in return. Michael left the clinic, his mind blank and empty.

Michael went home quickly after the lookup. His wife soon asked him whether he had gotten the test results. He replied that yes, he had. “But it’s nothing,” Michael said. He simply couldn’t bring himself to say it. He couldn’t really believe it himself. In despair, he tried to get it out of his mind. He spent his day reading and walking about the living room, trying to forget what the doctor had told him. Regardless, Michael couldn’t help but constantly turning over himself in bed at nighttime, haunted by thoughts invading his mind, thoughts repeatedly banging on his soul, filling him with worry, expectation, panic. He turned to his wife, lying quiet next to him. Half asleep, she asked him “What is it?” “I have cancer,” Michael responded.

A restless night passed, and the wife, prompt and rushing out of bed, grabbed her phone and started making calls. Michael, feeling weak and feverish, remained glued to his bed’s sweated sheets. His wife tenderly held his hand and helped him up. Carefully petting him, she said that she had talked to this doctor she knew and that maybe she could help them out. Michael, crumbling inside, slowly got up. The doctor’s office was about half an hour away. It would be a tortuously long trip.

Upon arrival, the doctor sympathetically greeted the couple. Cordially inviting them into her office, she sat down, staring at Michael. The doctor commented that she knew that Michael had only found out about his condition yesterday, and asked him how he was feeling. Without truly expecting an answer, the doctor calmly began to describe the causes of the cancer, what it consisted of and how it would affect him. She explained that mesothelioma is a rare type of cancer that is caused by exposure, commonly through inhalation or digestion, to a type of mineral denominated asbestos. Michael had been exposed to this substance while working at a curtain-developing factory forty years ago. The disease affects the mesothelium, the protective membrane that covers many of the body’s internal organs, causing its cells to become cancerous and divide rapidly. Such causes the thickening of the membrane, which in turn leads to the kind of symptoms that Michael had been experiencing. As the doctor spoke, Michael got the impression that her gestures flowed together without sentiment, professional and detached, something that afflicted him, even more than her words. She carried on listing possible treatments, which consisted of radiation therapies and chemotherapy. The doctor briefly mentioned that alternative cure methods were also an option, but their efficiency was mostly unproven. Finally, she reminded Michael of his dire prognosis – He had most likely less than one year left to live. He glanced at his attentive wife, discouraged. All his strength had been violently heaved out of him. He was not prepared for the immediate consequences that conventional treatments such as chemo would entail, and didn’t feel the motivation to step into unknown territory and struggle to find an unconventional path to health. Michael left the doctor’s office, desperate and disoriented, with only the tight grip of his wife’s hand to soothe him.

He went on without proper treatment. Lost, fallen in depression, Michael turned to religion at first. He sought solace in the quietude of prayer and reflection. He’d go to the local worshipping place, kneel and whisper his agonies, trying to spark a feeling of hope in himself, trying to find motivation to carry on. He reflected upon the memories of his past, upon happy moments he had experienced, trying to recreate that joy he felt. But happiness, with the burden of illness upon him, seemed like something impossible to completely attain again. The cancer was taking over Michael’s body and mind. Michael then spent several days at a time locked in his room. Bent over himself, he had his glaring, bloodshot eyes addictively facing a TV screen all day. He napped at random times and almost didn’t interact with his dedicated wife anymore, always feeling worn out, void, thoughtless. One day, he found himself browsing on his computer. Out of pure impulse, he searched mesothelioma, a term that had become far too familiar to him. He came upon numerous stories of people who had been diagnosed with the cancer. One such person, he found, was James “Rhio” O’Connor. A dim feeling of excitement was lit, rapidly spreading within.

James O’Connor was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma with the age of 61, the same age that Michael now had. Like Michael, O’Connor was given less than one year to live. He was advised to take his wife on a cruise and come back to commence chemotherapy treatments. However, knowing that chemo would decrease the quality of his life and not greatly expand its length, he refused to take it as an option. Instead, he boldly chose to fight the cancer his own way. Taking his chances, he disregarded conventional therapies and sought other methods to cure himself. By speaking with various clinicians and doing an extensive research on the subject, he formulated his own cure regimen, taking over 100 supplements a day, conducting regular mind and body exercises and committing to a thorough change of diet. O’Connor, fighting the cancer with nothing but his own courage and determination, surprisingly outlived his prognosis by more than five years.

Michael was greatly inspired by his story. He promptly bought a copy of his book, They Said Months, I Chose Years!, in which O’Connor describes the process he went through; Michael and his wife read it together, aloud. What surprised Michael more than any other aspect of the text was the tone in which it was composed – The book had been written by a happy man, a man that enjoys life. Influenced by O’Connor’s written words, Michael searched a similar treatment. He spoke to a number of professional clinicians, consulted a plethora of texts on the subject, and gradually began to form his own treatment. Today, he remains alive, struggling for a cure. But most importantly, O’Connor taught him to enjoy every following second of his life with a renewed taste. He does not only remain alive. He lives.

Michael is my alter-ego, an older version of myself, a character molded according to the difficulties he is faced with. Michael is the persona I would most likely take upon myself if I were diagnosed with mesothelioma. I can’t claim that I would be even closely as strong and determined as James “Rhio” O’Connor was and immediately take on the task of stepping out of conventional cure methods. I would probably drag myself about until I found a source of inspiration. People such as James R. O’Connor would probably fill in that role. O’Connor is an inspiration to all those who lack the strength to fight back and give in to weakness. Michael cured himself through the words of men like O’Connor, not just because he learned that it was possible to fight his cancer, but also because it was possible to live with it. And if Michael ultimately realized this, so would I.

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