For those of us who did not meet him, we can only know James Rhio O’Connor through his story . There is joy in his story. That joy happens because the story does not end; it continues through us. Rhio courageously and intelligently faced his cancer. He applied rigorous research techniques to know his disease. He used this knowledge and his spirit to make every move to defeat it. A great Chinese philosopher-general once said, “…if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.” Rhio did this, and he won his hundred battles, outliving his initial prognosis by almost seven years. I admire what he did, and his approach inspires mine.
Rhio’s story has gotten into my soul. After a few days of thinking about it, I started feeling like I had cancer. Shock began waking me in the middle of the night with thoughts, ideas, and questions about “my” cancer, and I desperately wanted to immediately go to the library to look up information or to call somebody to answer my questions. I have no trouble believing that Rhio experienced the same feelings.
Soon, I was totally consumed by the desire to handle this cancer. I could not feel other things around me because emotion consumed me 100%. I lost hope of my ordinary life continuing, and I felt that only the research would give me the hope and the power to continue. Maybe my artistic temperament allowed me this degree of empathy, but, regardless, I feel like Rhio was living on through me and that I was granted great insights into myself.
I learned that facing death changed my perspective from quietly feeling that I will live forever to one of continually living for now. “Living for now” fills each day, each hour, and each moment with urgency, energy, and purpose. For Rhio and for me, this makes all the work and pain necessary to conquer the cancer easier because you discover that you focus on the goal and not the process. “Living for now” makes each moment count for more. It makes decisions easier, and it allows you to stop postponing the things you love. That is how Rhio did it, and that is the best thing that he shows us through his story.
How to Use the Lesson
As I begin my research, my first desire is to find a guide. My ideal guide would know the cancer and be my advisor while I made the decisions. My ideal guide is hard to find. The medical community is limited, and there are more people with cancer than there are experts on the disease. So, I believe that I must become my own guide…an act of courage and confidence. From what I have read, Rhio must have made the same decision. I have heard it said, “If it is to be, it’s up to me.” The biggest advantage of this attitude is that I accept full responsibility for my own body, and, with that responsibility, comes power.
Before seeing the first doctor, I would make a list of all the ideas I had about cancer and my cancer in particular. Some of these ideas would be true and others might not. In today’s world, the easiest place to start validating these ideas is the Internet, and, from that starting place, I would clarify the accuracy of my initial assumptions and learn a basic knowledge of my disease.
I would prepare for each visit with a doctor or a therapist or a clinician by composing a list of questions. I would ask for as many details as they could provide me, and I would develop a deeper and deeper understanding of the disease and the treatments for it. I would listen to all that they could tell me (but I would not hear them if they talked about the end or showed a spirit of hopelessness). I would prod them to describe all the options, and I would ask their advice for where I could go to obtain more details on these options. I would ask them to both suggest avenues of study and to “open doors” for me so that I could access ongoing medical research into my cancer and evolving therapies that might become available while I am still available to take advantage of them.
Between each visit, I would keep developing my understanding through research and through conversations with experts when I could find them. This might also include “survivors” of my cancer. I would do everything I could to develop my understanding of my choices, but I expect that I would find that, in some cases, the right choice might not be scientifically clear. For those, I would trust my instincts.
Regardless, I would take ownership of all the decisions regarding my treatment. I am the only one who knows my fears and my hopes and my goals.
I do not know Rhio’s profession or background, but his approach indicates his deep trust in science. As an artist, I can add my different perspective. From Rhio, I can learn to use a rigorous scientific approach. From myself, I can keep my heart on positive, life-affirming goals and all the good reasons for living. The best reason for living is love. My first love is for my children. Just wanting to be there for them – to keep them from being alone in this big country would keep me fighting for even one more second of this life. My other great love is to create art; and I would fight to keep this life just to create one more beautiful and lasting work.
Curiously, when I imagined the prospect of death by cancer in less than a year, I found that my first reaction was relief. This is not a bad thing. It freed me from paralyzing fear. It is my philosophy that we all live many times, sometimes as humans and sometimes as other creatures. As an artist, I am very sensitive to all around me, sometimes this fills me with wonder and joy but sometimes it feels heavy and burdensome. Maybe the next life will be better, and I believe it will be.
But belief in another life is no reason to quit on this one. I do not like to quit. Most of us, as humans, do not want to die. When confronted with death, we will try everything to increase our chances to live. This gives us more power and more speed.
I believe that there is a reason for my life, and, because of that, my life owes me something. Inside me, I feel that after I achieved this ‘something,’ then this life can end…not before. This life has told me that I will be a great artist with an opportunity to contribute messages that will give the world inspiration even after I am gone. This belief gives me power against the bad things in life, even cancer. There are many examples of artists who die just after leaving their masterpiece to the world. Knowing you have more to give makes hard choices easy and complicated actions simple.
Finally, if still confronted by imminent death, I would talk to my children. I would let them know that life is change and that something better awaits all of us – for me now and for them sometime in the future. I would make it clear to them that it is only fair that I make room for other people. Death is just change and just another step in the cycle that is life. Change is normal and should never be feared. One of the beauties of this natural change of dying is that it frees us from this life’s burdens and makes way for us to be born again, maybe into a better life, maybe into a life with a bird’s freedom to fly.