Don’t Accept Fate, Create It
James “Rhio” O’Connor passed away July 11th, 2009. He died of mesothelioma, a type of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. However, James was diagnosed in 2001 and doctors told him he had only a year to live. Surgery and radiation weren’t even options and chemotherapy would only be able to provide a few extra months, but the pain and sickness involved basically ruled that option out as well. So what did he do? He didn’t listen. Taking his life into his own hands, he extensively researched his disease and learned all he could. By developing a personalized diet and healing regimen, James was able to survive his disease for more than seven years. He defied his prognosis and set an example that I believe should be followed by anyone diagnosed with life threatening illness. In his memory I would like to share my story, and perhaps inspire many more people to take matters into their own hands. Don’t accept your options, create your options.
My mother and I walk out of the doctor’s office, speechless. We return to the car, she drives so I have a chance to look over the pamphlets and the pathology report. Preparation? Ha. Nothing in this world can prepare you for the words “advanced melanoma”. Stage IV advanced melanoma was the full name they gave us, but cancer was all we could hear.
On our way home my mom searches for the correct words and says “Well, we didn’t expect this at all”. I almost don’t hear her, still wondering how such a small mole, about the size of the eraser end of a pencil, could be so destructive. Then, I confidently respond, “Well, if God gave me cancer, it must be for a good reason”. I don’t know what caused me to say that, or why I stayed so calm. I believe I was still in shock at the time. I was certain from the beginning I did not want friends, teachers, anyone except my immediate family to know about my situation. All that would do is cause them to worry, and treat me different for my entire life, or at least what I had left of it. When we arrive home I tell my dad and younger brother the news. My brother immediately reassures me. “Keegan, you don’t have cancer” he says, “If you did you’d feel funny”. My brother loves to astound the family with his knowledge, and this logic was undeniable, I did not feel “funny” at all. Still we all know the seriousness of the situation. The dermatology clinic told us we didn’t need a second opinion, but that didn’t sit well with my mom. My dermatologist wanted me scheduled for immediate surgery on Monday, and to see more specialists about chemotherapy. We all agree that we can’t leave a situation like this up to one clinic (even though three separate doctors agreed that this was melanoma). Trying to fully process this dilemma we decide to just put the issue to rest for the time being, but we know we can’t simply accept a single doctor’s prognosis and treatment methods. I then go to bed, praying for answers and asking God to give me the strength to beat the cancer.
The next day, my mother returns home after talking to a close friend she knows who is involved in the medical field. Her advice is to go straight to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. Knowing we aren’t able to get an appointment on such sort notice, we decide our best option would be to simply sit and wait for an opening. So, Sunday morning we pack up the notoriously unreliable van, unsure whether or not it will even make the five hour drive to Rochester.
We arrive in Rochester Sunday night and find a hotel. The next morning we go straight to the oncology department and my mother explains the situation, shedding a few tears in the process. The woman at the desk tells us we need to go and register first, sending us to the first floor. The woman who registered us tells us we will receive a phone call when they have information on whether or not they have an opening. During this long process I start thinking to myself, and many questions begin popping into my head. “When should I tell my friends?” “How long will the doctors give me to live?” “Will that tape from the recent karaoke party be the last record of my existence?” I realize I can’t continue thinking like this, but must stay confident and strong, for myself and my mom. Well, not an hour goes by when my mom’s phone dies. We go back to registration to give them my cell phone number and receive wonderful news. The woman looks at her computer and says “Wow, you must have a guardian angel on your shoulder”. We had lab appointments scheduled for that day already, along with appointments to meet a dermatologist and surgeon soon after.
All of Monday and Tuesday morning they ran various tests on me (blood, X-rays, etc.), and Tuesday afternoon I met with the dermatologist and then the surgeon. The dermatologist tells me it is very advanced melanoma and gives me about a fifty percent chance of surviving five years. I can only think of what I can do with five years, or how many of those years I will even be healthy enough to enjoy life. The dermatologist recommends a PET scan, to see the extent of the cancer, and an immediate wide excision of the remaining mole (since I only had a partial biopsy in Green Bay). He also wants to do a lymph node biopsy to help assess the severity even further. He says it’s the normal procedure for this type of cancer, but it’s normally done on people in their fifties and sixties, not people who are seventeen.
It’s Wednesday morning, the alarm rings at 7 a.m.; I have an hour until my PET scan. We arrive at the clinic and the doctor checks my blood sugar. He then says with a big smile on his face “In few minutes you’re going to be radioactive”, as if I wasn’t uneasy enough. He then injects me with some radioactive sugar and tells me I will have to wait an hour for the sugar to circulate through my bloodstream. After reclining the electronic chair, shutting off the lights, and closing the curtain he says “Just go to sleep. Don’t worry, it’s easy”. Obviously he has never had cancer. I took a while to again pray for answers, then started thinking about what my priorities would be over the course of the next five years. After the scan is finished my mom and I walk to our favorite downtown restaurant and have some lunch, waiting for the results of the PET scan and for the pathologists at the Mayo clinic to review the slides from Green Bay.
We pray for hours on the outside tables of the restaurant, which are right on the sidewalk. The sights and sounds of the city seem to fade away as I am drawn into deeper and deeper thought and prayer. Then, suddenly, my phone rings, and mom answers. It’s the dermatologist we met at the clinic on Tuesday. He tells my mom “I have good news”. My mother gratefully responds “I love you Dr. Roenigk”. All lab work including the PET scan came back negative for cancer, and the pathology report from the Mayo Clinic was astonishing.
All the pathologists at the clinic passed my biopsy slides around the lab, since they had never seen anything like this before. Two moles, a blue nevus and a spitz nevus, had combined. These two combined moles made the cellular structure look exactly like cancer, and only the most experienced pathologists would ever be able to see this. Had I stayed in Green Bay I would have had extensive surgery and began chemotherapy, but I was spared from all that pain and illness due to the experience of the pathologists at Mayo. Dr. Roenigk tells us to meet him at the clinic and he will perform a small excision to remove the remainder of the mole, then we would be free to go.
On the way I tell my mom some big news. Although I’m not sure when, during the course of our stay I realized I wanted to be a doctor, specializing in oncology. Until this time I had no idea what I really wanted to do with my life. “I know now”, I told her. Then I remembered what I told my mom back when I first was told I had cancer. God gave me it for a “good reason”. Although I didn’t know it, I was right. God had a plan.