The sound of the prison gates closing behind me was not what I expected to hear over my March break. Its tone was final, authoritative, a heavy percussion. Behind the walls of a maximum security facility, I became a foreigner.
Inside, a man serving a lengthy sentence awaited me. Two guards escorted me down to his cell. Two attorneys from Prisoner’s Legal Services, where I was interning, had taken me on this trip for a personal interview with a client whose case I had been working on for practically three months. My senses strained at each unfamiliar noise, my mind raced at each corner we turned as we approached our client’s block. Yet in this foreign territory, I did not turn and run. I had a job to do. Even here, in a place I never imagined I would be, I was determined to survive.
Wearing tights had taught me I could.
I first put on a pair of tights at the age of four. My first stage role in The Nutcracker Ballet required it. It was hard to wear tights at four—“tights are for girls”. It was hard to wear tights in fifth grade; my teacher said “boys don’t dance in the ballet—they play hockey and basketball”. In middle school, well-meaning adults told my parents I shouldn’t dance in the ballet—it wasn’t “normal” for boys. In high school, the guys on the swim team began taunting me with comments about “dancing boys” being “sissies,” “fags,” and “gay”. Still, I rushed off after practice to dance, even though the “expert” consensus was “don’t,” “can’t”, “mustn’t”, “shouldn’t.” Today, I still treasure my involvement in the world of theatre, including my annual performances of The Nutcracker. By not listening to the negativity around me — by moving past the doubters and finding my own way — I was able to enjoy these unique experiences on the stage I otherwise would not have had.
In facing these insults, as with all things, my parents taught me that there are three ways to deal with life’s challenges. I can stand still, and go nowhere. I can — like a car stuck in the mud — spin my “wheels” and make a lot of noise, but only manage to make a bigger rut. Or I can pick up my feet and start moving, sometimes down a path less traveled, but moving nonetheless.
In October 2001, James Rhio O’Connor picked up his feet and moved down a different path.
James Rhio O’Connor was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer often caused by exposure to asbestos called mesothelioma. Mesothelioma (www.survivingmesothelioma.com) restricts the lungs’ ability to function properly—making breathing difficult. Symptoms and diagnosis often do not appear until the disease has reached an advanced stage. When O’Connor received his diagnosis, he was told “don’t fight it” — to take his wife on a cruise and come back and sign up for Hospice—and wait to die. The location of a tumor near his spine meant “can’t do surgery,” the reduced quality of life from chemotherapy dictated to Mr. O’Connor that he “mustn’t ” seek this course of treatment.
Given less than a year to live, O’Connor did not choose to stand still and just die, nor did he just “spin his wheels” making a lot of noise. He picked up his feet and started moving. Instead of becoming consumed with thoughts of his cancer, James Rhio O’Connor’s philosophy was to become consumed with the disease’s “cure.” O’Connor became actively involved with his treatment—researching for countless hours in libraries and picking the brains of researchers, doctors, and cancer patients. He learned about different therapies—their philosophies and how they would affect him both short and long term. Working with professional clinicians and dieticians, and inspired by Hippocrates’ philosophy “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” O’Connor adopted an organic and whole food diet, including a regimen of over 100 supplements a day. James Rhio O’Connor chose to make the tough choices. O’Connor was determined — he wanted to live.
On July 11, 2009, James Rhio O’Connor began to teach. While mesothelioma may have taken his life, it did not take his quest.
Jackie Robinson, who faced a long and treacherous road when he decided to break baseball’s color barrier, once said “A life is only important in the impact it has on other lives.” Death threats were sent to his family, spectators spit and cursed at him, opposing pitchers hurled fastballs at his head. Jackie had reasons to be angry with the fate life had dealt him because of the color of his skin, but he did not use fists and angry words to deal with life’s challenges. Instead, he took the road of quiet determination. His courage and example inspired me when I faced life’s challenges. His story still inspires many people today.
In a legacy that echoes Jackie Robinson’s vision of a valuable life, James Rhio O’Connor still impacts thousands of people. His book, They Said Months, I Chose Years: A Mesothelioma Survivor’s Story, offers encouragement and hope to readers by telling them, quite literally, to never say die. Citing nearly one hundred articles, he puts forth ways in which patients can use sound nutritional principles to fight chronic diseases like cancer, and encourages the idea that that there are ways beyond conventional treatments of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. Readers are inspired to remain optimistic, not give up, but to pick up their feet and start to move in the direction “to live.”
Hundreds of college students read about James Rhio O’Conor in their search for scholarships. They research how he courageously fought off the doctor’s dire predictions, the statistics and “beat” mesothelioma for 7 ½ years. These students research mesothelioma (www.survivingmesothelioma.com), they research alternative medicine, they research healthy diets—they learn. These students then share what they learn with roommates, friends, professors, parents—educating them. These students write inspiring essays about their own battle with cancer–the battle with cancer of someone they love—about battles they imagine they would fight if given a cancer prognosis. Other people reading these essays are educated and inspired. They learn that the word “cancer” doesn’t have to mean there is no hope, and they should “just stand still and go no where”. These “students” learn they don’t have to take the doctor’s prognosis and “go off on a cruise” or just “spin a big rut while making a lot of noise.” They learn that they can take charge of their life, their body, and their cancer—and–pick up their feet and take on new challenges. Why they can even learn “to wear tights and dance in the ballet.”
James Rhio O’Connor gives hope to others by his example of following alternate routes and life styles to challenge a dire cancer prognosis. James Rhio O’Connor gives courage to others by his story of determination to give his wife, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren his gift of—not months, but—7 1/2 more years of his life. James Rhio O’Connor won his battle with mesothelioma by continuing to educate and inspire others.
“Even here, in a place I never imagine I would be, I am determined to survive.” Whether interviewing a murderer in a maximum security facility, dealing with the taunts from jocks on the swim team for dancing in the ballet, or possibly someday dealing with a frightening diagnosis of cancer—I want to survive. While it is absolutely impossible to know how I would react to being told I have a terminal disease, inspired by the life and victories of James Rhio O’Connor and his battle with “Mr. Meso,” I know I have choices—choices to survive. Following O’Connor’s intellectual and determined path outlined in his book, I would research books, articles, success stories, expert medical and alternative medicine sources. I would not limit my options to conventional methods, nor would I remain uninformed and carelessly flirt with experimental methods. As did Mr. O’Connor, I would seek the advice of clinicians and alternative medicine experts to make wise choices.
For now, I can continue to make the choice to maintain my health with regular exercise, a nutritious diet, annual medical checkups, and healthy life habits (like not tempting disease by smoking, drinking or using recreational drugs). And… everyday, respecting Mr. O’Connor’s spirit to live, I make the choice to “survive.”
“A life is not important except for the impact it has on other lives.” James Rhio O’Connor’s life impacts many others.