Sprague, Sarah L. – Surviving Mesothelioma

Sprague, Sarah L.

Believe. That word is inscribed on the bracelet I always wear. To believe means to know something is true in your heart, even though everyone disagrees. To believe means to find hope when it seems that there is none to be found. To believe means to have faith. If there is one man that could embody what it means to believe, that man is most definitely Rhio O’Connor.

Rhio O’Connor was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer, at the age of sixty-one and given less than one year to live. Pleural mesothelioma (www.survivingmesothelioma.com) is a rare form of cancer caused by malignant cells on the surface of the mesothelium, the sac surrounding the lungs. Current treatments, such as chemotherapy, surgery, or radiation therapy, are not curative and often do little in prolonging life or increasing quality of life. Even though these conventional treatments had little to offer him, Rhio was far from giving up. With the help of many clinicians, Rhio created his own alternative treatment plan: a strict diet, exercise, many additional vitamins, supplements and an astonishingly strong belief that he would defeat this cancer.

This resounding faith pushed Rhio to get through his prognosis, his new treatment, and the seven and a half more years that he lived, almost eight years longer than predicted. This faith in something more powerful in his cancer, more powerful than even himself, gave him the strength and the determination to actively fight his cancer to the very end. By gaining immense knowledge about mesothelioma, its treatments and the human body in general, Rhio made a strong decision: he took control of his own life and decided to become proactive in his treatment. He would not just give up and die. Rhio was willing to do whatever it took. He fought “Mr. Meso”, as he called it, and defeated it.

Rhio defeated “Mr. Meso” when he actively sought more information about his cancer. He defeated “Mr. Meso” every time he went to bed at night having lived another day. By inventing the very name “Mr. Meso”, Rhio defeated cancer. The name made mesothelioma seem conquerable and well within his control. Rhio never allowed his cancer to defeat him in spirit and that is precisely why he won. Rhio was strong when he had much cause to be weak, defining his character and his life. He lived out his life day by day and made every moment count.

Taking the time to enjoy each present day in my own life often presents a challenge. Caught up in studies, sports, extracurriculars and life in general, I regret to confess that I forget just how fast I’m flying through life. As I searched through the mesothelioma studies on Cancer Monthly (www.cancermonthly.com), I watched as the mean patient survival dropped from 26.8 months to 18, to 11, smaller and smaller, all the way to a average patient life of 4.7 months after diagnosis. I saw my life getting shorter and shorter right in front of me, right there on the computer screen. I caught a glimpse of what it would actually be like to only live for 4.7 more months. In 4.7 months, summer will be almost over. I wouldn’t even live long enough to come back for my sophomore year in college.

This is exactly the type of attitude that Rhio resisted. Even as all this was flashing through my mind, I was starting to rebel. ‘Would I succumb to the cancer, just like that? No way. That is so not possible. I will be back for sophomore year. I will graduate. How is it that for absolutely no reason at all, a few cells on the membrane surrounding my lungs decided to keep dividing? They just keep going, and going, and going. Well I’m going to make them stop. If Rhio could do it, I can do it. I’m going to do whatever it takes. Starting NOW.’

The above rant is how I like to believe my reaction would be after being told I have terminal cancer. Of course I don’t actually know this, but I feel that my love for knowledge and motivation for survival can overcome anything. To put my words into actions, I would then attack every reputable book, website and doctor to transform my ignorance into useful knowledge: not just about my cancer and different treatment options, but the mechanism behind cancer in general, my specific type and the theory behind each different treatment. After carefully obtaining this wealth of information, I would make my decision regarding treatment.

My overall aim would be to obtain the greatest quality of life while also maximizing my length of life. I truly believe that all forms of treatment have both significant risk and merit and that each treatment must be individualized to the specific needs of the patient. After carefully evaluating all possible options and their potential outcomes and assuming that surgery is not an option, at this moment I believe I would choose complementary treatments, such as herbs, healthy nutrition, vitamins, in conjunction with personalized chemotherapy utilizing prior assay testing. Although I would choose this option now, I have not talked to any doctors, other patients with similar circumstances or professional clinicians and this decision is very much liable to change with circumstances. Right now, however, I stand by my statement that each treatment has its merits and that the best decision for each patient will differ widely.

Although treatments certainly do vary, Rhio O’Connor provides a heroic figure for all to look up to. He exemplifies the very definition of what all patients aim to be: a survivor. Surviving itself is not the tricky part; the tricky part is surviving with spirit. It would have been so easy for him to just stop and say “I’m done”, accepting that his life was over. But Rhio’s everlasting hope, unyielding determination, unquenchable spirit and faith did not fail him. He rose above mesothelioma and became proactive. He obtained an incredible amount of knowledge of his own volition. He sought his own treatment. He made his own decisions.

Patients like Rhio are the reason I am pursuing a career in biomedical research. Their incredible stories inspire me to learn everything I can about cancer, its potential causes and especially possible treatments. Rhio’s sincere passion for life makes me desperately want to do everything I possibly can to come closer to discovering that elusive cure. The hard, life-or-death decisions that cancer patients must make on a daily basis help me put my own choices in perspective and have made me realize that so far I have made the right one: to enjoy life.

Rhio faced these tough decisions every day. His ability to make these daunting, literally life-changing decisions and then stick by them is absolutely admirable and tells me so much about his inspiring character. By becoming his own advocate he took an extremely hands-on approach to fighting “Mr. Meso”, an approach that helped enable him to outlive his prognosis by over seven years. This outstanding statistic seems crazy. It is crazy. But it is a prime example of just how much power and influence the mind exerts over the body. By believing, Rhio defeated the odds: he lived. Rhio believed in something greater: he believed in life. Rhio inspires me, not because he lived longer than was expected, but because of how he lived. He truly believed.

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