The Ancient Taoist Philosopher, Lao Tzu once said, “At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.” James Rhio O’Connor knew himself—he believed he could use his mind to triumph over his body and he believed he could overcome his diagnosis with the rare form of cancer, mesothelioma. His determination to persevere and willingness to succeed are living proof that survival is sometimes possible in an otherwise “incurable” prognosis. O’Connor serves as an everlasting medical inspiration for others, and his powerful spirit and firm determination led him to live his life until 69 years old, 7 ½ years after his grim diagnosis with mesothelioma cancer.
With a one year survival rate after diagnosis, mesothelioma cancer is not detected until it has reached its final stages, often 30 to 50 years after one has been exposured to asbestos. Asbestos is a human carcinogen and is associated with products such as caulk and refractory cements often used in industrial professions. Throughout the 1940s, asbestos was found in the form of dust throughout shipyards, mines and within the construction industry. Today, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires protective equipment to be worn in a potentially harmful asbestos environment. The symptoms of mesothelioma include, but are not limited to, shortness of breath, weight loss, abdominal pain, swelling and fever. Mesothelioma is an unusual form of cancer in which malignant cells are found in the mesothelium, a shielding sac that protects internal organs and produces a fluid that allows movement of the heart and lungs. One layer of the mesothelium surrounds the organ and the other forms a sac around it, both contributing to protection of the beating heart and contracting lungs. Cancer invading the Mesothelioma creates the mesothelium cells to become abnormal and divide without order, leading to destruction of surrounding organs and tissue. The cancer cells are likely to spread from the site of the mesothelioma to multiply throughout other parts of the body.
O’Connor was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma. The massive fluid build-up from the mesothelioma cells puts pressure on the lungs and respiratory system, eventually preventing breathing. If personally diagnosed with this rare form of mesothelioma cancer, I would first clear my mind and challenge myself with a holistic approach to finding a cure. Actively involving my mind, body and spirit to my multi-dimensional approach to finding a cure, I would strive to challenge myself with each decision and endeavor I would encounter. I would first begin my journey by utilizing as many scholarly resources and medical research I could find. Just as O’Connor did, I would make research my number one priority and be consumed to taking advantage of the library and the vast amount of information available on the internet. More specifically, I would keep a binder with information I found from reputable medical sites such as Cancer Monthly, Medline—the National Library of Medicine’s database through PubMed, the MesoLink website and articles from the Mayo Clinic database. I would then turn to professional medical books and personal reference resources from survivors. Furthermore, I would utilize sources I found in the bibliography of articles and books as a starting point for further in-depth research. Additionally, I would try to utilize each medical professional resource I could encounter including researchers, clinicians and previous patients. Through email, phone calls, hand-written letters or an in-person conversation, I would seek advice and consistently ask questions. By first inquiring with my physician about the risk factors, symptoms, diagnosis and approach in tackling mesothelioma, I would follow-up with alternative-treatment questions utilizing factual-based informed consent. For example, I would ask my pathology reports to be sent to another hospital for a second opinion and question the physician’s past treatments and survival outcomes with other patients.
If I faced the same challenges as O’Connor, I would continue to exhaust each research source I could find. I would analyze the risk and benefits of the three types of conventional treatment: surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Surgery would remove the affected tissue, but may involve removing parts of the affected organ. In O’Connor’s case, surgery was not an option due to the location of the tumor near his spine. Chemotherapy would involve using toxic drugs to kill both healthy and cancerous cells. In O’Connor’s situation, chemotherapy would decrease his quality of life and not improve his length of life. Finally, radiation therapy would use x ray and gamma rays to deliver internal and external radiation to the affected cells without exposing healthy cells and tissues to destroy the tumor. Due to pleural mesothelioma with the lungs, I would avoid surgery, as there is a high risk factor with damaging vital organs near the tumor. Instead, I would use radiation treatment because it is fast, transmits for one year, is commonly used and does not expose healthy cells to radiation. I would result to chemotherapy as a last resource due to the high toxicity levels and negative side effects.
If surgery, radiation and chemotherapy did not work, then I would challenge my body and experiment with alternative treatment plans. From my research, I would know that alternative treatment involving non-toxic substances, herbs, vitamins and minerals are statistically proven to be complimentary with conventional approaches. I would consult my physician and further research studies involving treatment with Vitamin C, Ozone Therapy, extract from the Astragalus membranaceus plant, Cat’s Claw tropical vine Ukrain weed and Iscador mistletoe. Furthermore, I would also consider palliative treatments involving draining excess fluid from my lungs through suction to prevent further fluid buildup surrounding my lungs. I would also experiment with Acupuncture to reduce potential pain and contact a nutritionist to incorporate powerful fruits, meats and vegetables in my diet. I would continue to keep my body active through exercise and daily physical activities.
I would also challenge my spirit and seek inspiration from previous mesothelioma survivors such as O’Connor. I would gravitate towards my family and friends for emotional support and actively engage in meditation and yoga to stabilize my inner spirit. Furthermore, I would read passages from the Bible and other inspirational stories to feed my drive to succeed. Finally, I would challenge myself to remain calm and know that my future outcomes have a reason and purpose behind them. The human body is an incredible concept that continues to challenge one’s intellect, motivation and spirit in unknown ways.
O’Connor’s triumph to live 7 ½ more years from his “incurable” disease serves as an incredible source of inspiration for me. His ability to take chances and drive to succeed speaks volumes to his character and purpose in life. Even though I have not been personally affected with cancer, I spent last summer working at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, TN and plan on attending Nursing School this upcoming year. The ability to fight—not only for one’s life, but also for what one believes in, is a highly admirable trait that I will continue to be inspired by. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to apply for the James “Rhio” O’Connor Memorial Scholarship.