Victory in a Losing Battle: The James Rhio O’Connor story
In October 2001, James “Rhio” O’Connor was diagnosed with Pleural Methothelioma, a cancer commonly caused by exposure to asbestos. Rhio’s cancer trigger was no different to anyone else’s; he was exposed to the controversial silicate when younger. Although Rhio became just another cancer statistic, he chose to fight the cancer in a unique way, one that would set him apart not just as a patient, but as a person. Through research and determination Rhio successfully fought the cancer and outlived the bleak prognosis of Doctors by more than six years. For more information on Rhio’s incredible story and his plan of action, please visit www.survivingmesothelioma.com, here you can find other survivor’s stories and details about the treatment and diagnosis of Methothelioma.
Firstly, let me explain to you more about the cancer, Methothelioma. As you can probably tell by the name, this cancer targets mesotheilial cells. These cells cover the surface of most of our internal organs, forming a line called mesothelium (membrane). Depending on what organ mesothelium covers, different names are given to each as necessary. In this essay I will focus on the mesothelium of the lungs; pleural mesothelium, which was the route of James Rhio O’Connor’s cancer: Pleural Methothelioma.
Exposure to asbestos is the leading cause of Methothelioma, of which pleural methothelioma is the most common type diagnosed (67-75%). Because Asbestos fibres are extremely small (3-20µm long and as thin as 0.01µm) the danger with them is that they are invisible to the human eye and can be breathed in. When inspired, the fibres eventually find their way into the the pleura lining of the lungs. Here they irritate the pleura and can cause gene changes which lead to the onset of cancerous cells, scientists however are still unclear about how the fibres cause these changes. Another problem associated with cancer of the pleural membrane is that because it is situated in close proximity with the heart’s membrane (pericardium) the cancerous cells have also been known to migrate to the heart.
Rhio’s pursuit to find victory in a seemingly impossible situation is an inspiration to all. It really inspires me to become more relentless in my times of adversity; if Rhio can find hope in the shadow of death, surely there is hope for any situation that I may come across. I think the most important lesson that can be learnt through Rhio is that although a feat may be unaccomplished, doesn’t mean that it is impossible.
To truly appreciate what Rhio accomplished and the difficulties he faced, I will try and put myself in his shoes. I will write about the treatments that are on offer, the problems I have and the people I choose for support and advice.
If diagnosed with mesothelioma my first question would be the treatments available to me and their effects? I would conduct my research by trying to understand the fundamentals behind each treatment and deciding if I need to look into other methods to aid in my recovery, if current treatments are inadequate or insufficient.
Currently, like most other cancers, we have the usual treatments available: Surgery – cutting out cancerous tissue, Chemotherapy – using drugs to fight cancer, and Radiotherapy – using high level energy rays (usually x-ray) to kill cancerous cells. However these treatments are anything but perfect solutions. Surgery has potential side effects of infections, haemorrhages, inflammation, scarring, and changes of local blood flow in tissues or organs. All drugs have side effects too, I will look into these closely later on but for now, common and general symptoms of chemotherapy are hair loss and thinning, feelings of tiredness and weakness, and a reduction in the number of blood cells. Furthermore, the side effects of Radiotherapy are extremely wide- spread. These effects vary among individuals and the area of the body used on. However feelings of extreme tiredness and weakness are also associated with this treatment. It is also important to remember that radiotherapy inevitably will destroy some of your healthy cells as well.
Today, it is common for patients to receive a combination of the above treatments, and sometimes all three. Surgery is not suitable for everyone however, and should be looked at as a control method rather than a cure. This is because surgery can’t remove every single cancerous cell, so unless the body is able to fight off and kill the remaining cancerous cells, the caner will eventually regrow. The aim of surgery is to maintain and slow the progression of cancer for as long as possible.
Mesothelioma is often diagnosed late like Rhio’s (less than a year to live). So in these cases, patients may be too ill to receive treatment from surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy. Doctor’s in these situations focus on relieving symptoms rather than evoking a cure as it is considered “too late” for many to recover. I am going to propose that my Pleural Mesothlioma has a prognosis like Rhio’s – less than a year to live.
Personally, the idea of the above three treatments don’t seem very appealing to me, especially with so many side effects with each. Even if I am strong enough to withstand surgery, the operation would involve removing the lung that is affected, in an operation called an extrapleural pneumonectomy – as if the operation wasn’t scary enough! Alternatively, if I am too weak for this surgery I may be offered a a pleurectomy to control symptoms. This alternative operation involves removing the pleaura on the affected lung to relieve chest pain and control fluid build up. Some operations also remove the pericardium (heart membrane) in attempts to prevent the cancer spreading. While writing this I have just realised the enormity of this operation and how someone with pleura mesothelioma would feel before an operation of this magnitude. I hope that while you are reading this, you, like myself can imagine what it would feel like to have a doctor tell you that they were going to remove the membrane of your lung and heart…
The drugs used most often when treating pleural mesothelioma are pemetrexed and cisplatin. Pemetrexed is an anti-metabolite; it stops cells repairing DNA that is used in cell division and replication. Cisplatin is a drug that consists of the metal platinum; platinum acts as a cross link (barrier) against protein and DNA preventing them from replicating and repairing – hence the cell eventually dies. However, although these drugs are very clever in terms of their aims and engineering, these drugs are simply nasty.
Cisaplatin has side effects of reducing number of white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets. Thus making you bruise easily; feel breathless and tired; and making you very susceptible to infections and further illnesses. If this doesn’t sound bad enough, Pemetrexed also has these side effects. Taking these drugs should be a last result. If cancer has already weakened you, these drugs might well finish you off….
To me, many of these treatments have little to offer. They seam a last result mainly due to the horrific side effects many of them have. So far the treatments either intend to slow down my cancer or either attempt to cure them, but by making me extremely weak in the process (not a good combination). I want to be like Rhio. Fighting for my cause, fighting to prove people wrong and fighting to survive! I would talk to my family about their views on the treatments. I’m confident that whatever happens my family would support me in which ever treatment I chose. Perhaps like Rhio I could create new protocols and treatments to aid in my recovery.
Talking to doctors, physiologists and current cancer sufferers would be my first choice for help and advice when planning new treatments. I could discuss the possibilities of stem cell research in the future and thoughts on other treatments. I would want to understand in detail how the cancer operates, the cells within it and anything I could about exercises, diets, supplements or lifestyles that can slow or aid in recovery from cancer.
Writing this essay has really made me appreciate what Rhio has done. It has really forced me to imagine what it would be like to live with cancer and what millions of other cancer sufferers have to go through every day. Rhio’s story should be an inspiration to all who think that they have no hope. If Rhio accepted the prognosis by doctors I’m sure they would have been right about his life expectancy, however Rhio didn’t accept this. He chose to live for something greater than himself. Rhio’s contribution to the field of Pleura Mesothelioma was great, but his love for life was greater. I believe that although his new treatment methods and protocols were highly effective, it was not these alone that kept him alive, but his heart and determination.