Horrifying. Shocking. Disbelief. If the diagnosis of mesothelioma was given to anyone but James Rhio O’Connor, these are a few of many great and terrible emotions that would most likely be swirling through his or her head. When James Rhio O’Connor was given this diagnosis in late 2001, however, he was strong. He did not bow to this seemingly inevitable death sentence. When most would fold up into themselves in a reclusive and depressed state, “Rhio” decided this disease was not bigger than he was. Because of his attitude and determination, Rhio outlived his prognosis by more than six years. For Rhio to conquer this mountain of an obstacle, he had to first understand what mesothelioma was.
Mesothelioma is a cancer that is caused nearly every time by exposure to asbestos, which is a set of minerals that have been used up until recently for commercial purposes; Rhio was exposed to this mineral at a young age. The onset of medical problems related to asbestos can sometimes take twenty to fifteen years to manifest themselves after the exposure first starts. People who are diagnosed with this cancer usually worked in one of the following trades: shipyard workers, miners, mill workers, and those who worked in the heating and construction industries. The reason why this disease is so harmful is the fact that treatment is very limited in effectiveness; surgery is only truly effective at easing the breathing process, not curing the cancer. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy may increase the lifespan of mesothelioma patients by a few years, but these therapies decrease the quality of life in a way that Rhio could not tolerate, so he knew he needed to look for better alternatives. This is where the amazing story of his recovery begins.
Rhio did something interesting: he personified his disease, naming it “Mr. Meso.” While this certainly seems unconventional and odd, this approach helped Rhio see the diagnosis as something he could approach, something he could work with, and something he could live with. Instead of looking at this disease as a larger-than-life obstacle, he brought it down to earth and brought it down to his playing field, with the ball in his court. The doctor first suggested that Rhio take some time to relax, possibly go on a cruise with his wife, and then return home to hospice care to ease the last part of his life. Rhio was not about to accept this as a response to this diagnosis. He knew that although this may be an acceptable response for some, he was too determined of a person to walk away defeated by a disease such as this. He knew there had to be a better way.
Rhio turned to what he referred to as “mind-body medicine.” In his book, They Said Months, I Chose Years, Rhio began the chapter on mind-body medicine with this: “If what we eat can nourish our body, what we think can nourish our mind.” Although this may seem like a simple statement, it is a profound one, and Rhio used its meaning constantly in his battle with cancer. He realized that this diagnosis wasn’t just a physical battle; it was a mental one, too. Having an optimistic and hopeful outlook throughout your battle with a disease such as mesothelioma is such a vital part to surviving this disease. Even if you are on every therapy the doctor recommends, yet you fail to be positive and hopeful, the therapies alone will probably not help you reach your goal. Rhio asserted that the “placebo effect” is extremely powerful in treating a disease such as mesothelioma.
One change that Rhio made that affected his outcome tremendously was what he changed about his diet. He believed that “what you put in your body is the key to health.” Rhio realized that the important process of detoxification could greatly improve his chance at having a successful recovery. This process is very beneficial to the organs like the kidneys and liver by removing the harmful toxic and harmful components that are found in our food today. Rhio not only cleansed and removed some of diet; he added to it by ingesting healthy supplements and vitamins. By taking a variety of such supplements and vitamins such as herbs, enzymes, amino acids, oils, vegetables and fruits, Rhio gave his body a chance to fight mesothelioma in a very natural way that still allowed him to function normally.
Rhio obviously spent a substantial part of his time researching different therapies and treatments, as well as talking to doctors and other experts on cancer about his best course of action. He worked with clinicians to formulate his diet and supplement regimen, he researched to find numerous articles on mesothelioma and cancer treatments, and he talked with other patients who had been through the same battle he was in. Most cancer patients wouldn’t take the time to spend countless hours researching this disease, especially with such a short prognosis, but Rhio wasn’t most people. He knew he had more than just a chance to survive. In They Said Months, I Chose Years, Rhio listed numerous case studies of other cancer patients who used unconventional methods to treat their disease and came out a survivor. He knew he wasn’t the only cancer patient who wanted to fight back without diminishing the quality of life.
We can see how Rhio responded to cancer, and we see the resilience and determination of such a great man paid off. The question is, what would any of us do if we faced a similar situation? Cancer has affected us all in some form or fashion, whether it be a family member who was diagnosed, a loved one who passed away, or maybe we were diagnosed ourselves. Not everyone can, nor should, react like Rhio did; his treatments and regiments will not work for everyone. I then have to ask myself: what would I do in a similar situation? How would I respond if such a diagnosis was given to me?
These questions are certainly not easy ones to answer, but Rhio inspired me to be able to find a starting point to answer such questions. Like Rhio, I would not want my quality of life to be diminished just to try to fight a disease. For some, chemotherapy and radiation are acceptable forms of therapy, and that is fine for those who choose these therapies, but I would not want to choose a therapy that would make my life miserable just for the purpose of extending it. I would want to get out and enjoy what I’ve always enjoyed doing. Years from now, I may not enjoy the same hobbies I do now, but if I did, I would want to be out hunting, fishing, camping, playing football, singing, playing guitar, and being around friends. Some may argue that this goal is unrealistic, but Rhio proved that this goal of enjoying life even while fighting cancer is very possible. I would also try to do as much research as possible on the diagnosis I was given. Knowing your enemy is the most crucial strategy of any battle, and the battle against cancer is no exception. I would do whatever it takes, whether that means spending hours in the library or searching the internet relentlessly. Also, my father is a physician, and I would certainly go to him for any medical question I had. I must understand, however, that what worked for some may not work for me, so keeping an open mind is vital. Most important of all, I would want to keep an optimistic and hopeful attitude and outlook on life throughout the battle with cancer like Rhio had. I believe this is more beneficial than any medicine or treatment can ever be.
James Rhio O’Connor set a prime example of defiance to such a horrible disease and of determination and grit to fight through this diagnosis with heart. The sad part about cancer is not that thousands are diagnosed every year; this is inevitable and predictable. The sad part is that out of the thousands that are diagnosed, few are able to react as James Rhio O’Connor did. Perhaps it is because people simply do not know his story and do not understand his methods. Hopefully this essay will enlighten those who do not know or understand, and maybe one day every cancer patient will be able to respond and be inspired in a way that would make Rhio proud.