I sat, stunned into silence in the doctor’s office, feeling like the wind had been knocked out of me. The words “cancer” and “less than a year to live” floated behind my eyes as the empty pit in my stomach grew larger.
“Is there anything that can be done?” I pleaded, trying not to see the resignation in the doctor’s face. My mind raced with unconnected thoughts; I glimpsed my fourth grade graduation, summers spent in Ocean City, my mother grieving the death of her brother to a brain tumor. I stared dully out the window as the doctor explained the extent of the cancer, its inoperable status, how conventional treatment had little to offer. Next, he was advising me to spend time with my loved ones, travel the world, and make the most out of my time. I had heard enough.
My feet felt like lead as I left the office building. A torrent of emotions broke through to the surface as I struggled with unanswered questions. Why me? How could I go home and tell my family? How could I explain to my father that he would have to bury his little girl? I put one foot in front of the other, letting muscle memory walk me through familiar streets and patterns. I looked up to find myself in front of the local new and used bookstore, a favorite weekend haunt where I often came to escape from the bustle of the city. I was instantly comforted by the unceremonious sign outside and the promise of calm within. Just a few minutes, I thought to myself, I could step inside and it would be like the past hour never happened.
“You’re in denial,” said my conscious, but I pushed the little voice back down and opened the door.
Aisles and rows of books new and old welcomed me into the store. I spotted my favorite high-backed reading chair in the corner, miraculously unoccupied. I smiled to myself, grateful that the bookstore never let me down. I wandered through the aisles pausing to read a back cover here or an excerpt there. Suddenly, my heart skipped a beat. A title in the Health and Wellness section had caught my eye and I couldn’t turn away. “They Said Months, I Chose Years: A Mesothelioma Survivor’s Story” by J. R. O’Connor was propped up on the shelf. This innocuous little paperback was threatening my newfound peace. I was furious. How dare this turn up here, in my safe haven? All of the day’s events came rushing back to me and my anger subsided to overwhelming sadness, threatening to push me to tears. Hastily, I grabbed the book and sought my chair in the corner.
I flipped through the book, searching for similarities. This was the story of James “Rhio” O’Connor, a sixty-one year old man who was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a rare type of cancer that is most often caused by exposure to asbestos. It occurs in the mesothelium, the thin layer of cells lining the body’s internal organs. O’Connor was given a year or less to live. He was told surgery was not an option, and that chemotherapy would not make any significant gains. In other words, I could have been reading my own story.
Entranced, I continued reading about O’Connor, searching for hope for myself. Instead of accepting his doctor’s prognosis as final, O’Connor was determined to fight. He copiously researched his cancer, consulted with professional clinicians, a designed a treatment plan to manage his disease. He made drastic lifestyle and diet changes to provide his body with a fighting chance. O’Connor took hundreds of supplements a day and practiced mind-body medicine – attuning his mental and spiritual self to benefit his health. I was amazed, amazed that this man had the courage to reject his death sentence, refuse the medical advice of experienced specialists, and make his own path towards wellness. I had never given alternative medicine any thought; it had always seemed a little far-fetched and without any solid evidence to show its efficiency. As a pharmacy student, I had only been trained in the medicalization of ailments. Alternative therapies were absent from our curriculum. I had to know more about them.
Sitting in my safe haven bookstore, my mind was racing as I began to formulate a plan. I would research alternative treatments, promising myself to try every library I could travel to. I would delve into the wealth of online knowledge, investigating diet, nutrition, spirituality, experimental medicine, and how to strengthen my immune system. I would contact other specialists, alternative clinics, radical practitioners, and fellow patients. Like O’Connor, I resolved to develop my own treatment regimen, specifically tailored to myself and my disease. I knew it would be a long, difficult struggle with setbacks and disappointments, but I was committed. My feelings of hopelessness from hours earlier were all but forgotten. But first, I would go home and tell my family. At that moment, I wanted to be surrounded by their presence. I would need their support in the coming months and years.
I looked down at the book in my lap, at the man I would never know, but who impacted my life nonetheless. Thank you Rhio, I thought to myself. His story, his selflessness to share it, and his perseverance in the face of great challenge inspired me, incited me to survive.