THE VALUE OF TIME
Deciding how to deal with terminal disease is not a light subject or an answer most people will truly have when first face with a diagnosis. We all know that any of us – ourselves or our loved ones – could receive that mind-numbing, heart-breaking news at any doctor visit. Small symptoms are often ignored and then accepted as they increase until it is undeniable that a problem exists. Terminal cancer of other disease is news no one can ever be prepared to receive. Yet we are all so susceptible, living in our high-stress, synthetic world.
Four years ago, my dad was diagnosed with colon cancer. As many will do, he ignored symptoms, bleeding and pain, and even avoided disclosing these problems to his physician during medical visits. When his problem deteriorated beyond a point which he could ignore, he made an appointment with his family physician at which he was finally honest about his questionable health. The physician referred him to several local clinics for advice on treatment. Not liking the automated phone “operators” or the “canned answers” from these clinics, he confided his fears and distress to a friend. Through this person, he learned that another mutual friend had a different type of cancer. Conventional treatments had failed her and she was seeking alternative treatment at a cancer center in Tulsa, OK.
My dad felt his first glimmer of hope. He called the same center to be greeted by a real and caring person on the phone. When he arrived at the Center for the scheduled tests, he was surrounded by staff and doctors who showed genuine concern and interest. He also noticed that even most patients at this center were smiling. The positive attitude of the staff and doctors fused the patients with hope. Their attitude immediately gave my dad some sense of confidence that he had come to the right place for his treatment and that he was, in the doctor’s words, “very salvageable.” Although his tumor was the size of a lemon, it was high in the colon and miraculously had not spread to any other part of his body!
Positive attitude aside, the five weeks of chemotherapy (Topo radiation) was painful and sickening for my dad. He experienced claustrophobia and frequent nausea. After this portion of his treatment, he was sent home for four weeks. When he returned to the Center, it was for surgery and a temporary colostomy bag. For six weeks, he felt humiliation at having this bag be a constant part of his life. However, he attended my youngest sister’s basketball games and family dinners and tried to work as much as he could. He still wanted to continue with his life. The next trip to the Center was for surgery that would reconnect his colon. A year and half later, after frequent testing and check-ups, my dad was declared cancer-free.
It has now been two years since my dad has had any signs of cancer in his body. When I asked him about his experience with cancer and his choice of treatment, he said that he knows he made the right choice in pursuing alternative treatment. He also says that the year after was the most difficult and painful of all. I guess our bodies don’t always heal gracefully. One of the results that amazes me is that he is not on any prescriptions. The Center thoroughly reviewed with him diet and vitamin supplements to maintain his health. In retrospect, he is not certain that he would go through the lengthy and painful treatments again. I am glad that he endured them, though, to give us more time with him.
I didn’t grow up with my dad. He and my mother were teenagers when they had me. As usually happens in those situations, their marriage didn’t work out. He made sporadic appearances throughout my life, but we never developed a relationship. He has a “new” family and a business that take up much of his time. I learned about his cancer through my grandparents. When I contacted him to ask for some advice on this scholarship essay, I was amazed at his eagerness to share with me, not only asking me to visit in person but also printing the journal he kept during his treatment.
As we shared lunch and stories last Friday, I felt a connection forming with this man who was nearly a stranger and yet my father. We made plans for a road trip together to see my younger sister. Reading through his journal, I am struck with the homesickness and physical pain as if I was there watching it all take place. I have to wonder if I would be as brave or as optimistic as he was. Then I think about my own family. I am a mother of three and a grandmother to five. When I think about the blessings my grandparents have been to me, I know that I would do whatever was necessary to be a part of my grandchildren’s lives for as long as possible.
James “Rhio” O’Connor had a cancer quite different from my dad’s, if any form of cancer is really different. Mesothelioma (https://survivingmesothelioma.com) is a cancer that can affect any or all the body’s internal organs. Mr. O’Connor’s bravery in not accepting death, but educating himself and investigating treatment options, is admirable. I wish he and my dad could have met. I am certain the discussion would have been amazing.
Rhio’s story is inspiring and heroic. It probably would have been easier to accept the prognosis and make the most of his final year. My dad could have done the same. I like to think that Rhio had family and friends who meant enough to him that he was not ready to stop being in their lives. Undoubtedly, his extended years to share with his loved ones was worth everything he went though. I hope that my dad also values the time he has bought with his pain and research. I know that I appreciate the opportunity that this scholarship has opened for me to reconnect with my father.