It’s apparent when you look around the Oncology Center at Lawrence Memorial Hospital that cancer affects people in vastly different ways. There are the obvious physical differences among patients—those that have been fighting for years, and those that have been recently diagnosed—but more startling are their emotional states. Almost all of the inflicted suffer some form of mental illness; an unfortunate, near inevitable occurrence. Yet, through all of this pain, arise the strongest and most passionate people that I have ever had the opportunity to meet.
Although I never knew of Rhio O’Connor, his story and legacy remind me of the many amazing people I met while volunteering at Lawrence Memorial. His struggle with mesothelioma brought out the best in him. From researching his disease independently, to inquiring doctors, he remained a man of optimism. So many people like Rhio would enter the office with smiles on their faces, acting as if they as were healthy as could be. This begged the question, “What kind of person would I be if I was diagnosed with cancer?”
A main component of Rhio’s success in outliving his prognosis was his attitude, an important characteristic in life, no doubt, but also one that can aid when fighting a terminal disease. Many people would agree that happy people tend to be healthier. One recent study in the European Heart Journal went as far to say that a positive attitude can reduce the likelihood that one will develop heart disease. In addition to this, stress notoriously affects the mind and body negatively. When I asked an oncologist how it is that he breaks the news to someone that has a limited time to live he explained that in most cases, estimating a life expectancy is difficult. He reasoned that since this is so, why should he tell someone that they have only three months to live, when they are going to worry themselves for those three months and could possibly live a great deal longer? While it is imperative that someone in a situation such as Rhio’s be positive, they must also be realistic.
Rhio O’Connor was not in denial about his disease. He knew the dangers that mesothelioma posed, and went about researching the best forms of treatment as well as alternative methods of therapy. I can only hope that I would act similar to him in his pursuit for information. Though oncologists are well-qualified to treat the disease of cancer, many suggest differing treatment options. This is one of the reasons that second opinions are so crucial. Perhaps an extreme example of this is the difference between eastern and western medicine. While we may view traditional treatments from the East as somewhat skeptical (for instance acupuncture for the treatment of cancer), they most likely view ours as destructive or excessive. One can hardly blame them after seeing the physical and emotional toll chemotherapy has on the body. In reality, cancer patients may benefit from a combination of both.
If someone becomes ill, the most natural reflex is to want to cure them of their ailment as quickly as possible. This is indeed the goal of modern medicine, but there are cases in which it may not benefit the patient to act so hastily. This may sound surprising, but let me provide an example. When you go to the health clinic complaining of the common cold, or some other viral infection, the overwhelming majority of the time you will receive an antibiotic. Not only does this add fuel to the fire for bacterial resistance of antibiotics (if indeed this illness is viral), but it also doesn’t provide any real benefit for you. In this specific case, simply waiting out the infection might be the best option. My point here is that we feel much safer leaving the doctor’s office with a prescription in our hand because we believe that if we are sick, there must be something that we can take to make it better. This can also be applied to cancer. One has to weigh the advantages of a certain medication along with the disadvantages. In some scenarios, waiting to receive a treatment might be a better option than taking it right away because it could be more effective at a later stage.
One advantage that Mr. O’Connor created for himself is that he realized that there currently isn’t one and only one way to treat this vicious disease. And his persistence in searching for the best option, as well as the manner in which he lived the remainder of his life left a lasting impression on those who knew his story. He may not have realized this at the time, but intentionally or not, he provided a model to strive towards for those with terminal illnesses or situations similar to his.
But how can someone who is carrying the weight of living with a deadly disease be concerned with this when they themselves are suffering? Randy Pausch, author of The Last Lecture, found himself in a related situation. He was confronted with the diagnosis of terminal pancreatic cancer and only six months to live. Unlike Mr. O’Connor, he was not able to live long past this point, but he made it a point to spend time with his family and friends. He also left a legacy, but Randy did this intentionally, namely for his kids whom he wouldn’t be able to raise once he was gone. Cancer is unique in that it holds the reputation of being one of the most destructive diseases known to man, but also gives some a new reason to live. I’ve seen a number a people go through this process. Between my freshman and sophomore year in college my grandmother and grandfather on my mother’s side were taken by cancer. But even seeing the way they lived their final days and learning from inspirational figures like Randy Pausch and Rhio O’Connor, I’m still not positive of what I would do if presented with a terminal illness. I certainly hope and pray that I would have the determination and optimism of Rhio, the creativity and ability of Mr. Pausch, and the strength and wisdom of my grandparents. Undoubtedly, I would search for the best possible treatments and go to great lengths to understand my situation. But above all I know that I would spend time with the ones that I love, my friends and family, because there is nothing that you can regret about leaving a legacy like that.