Strength beyond Words, Life beyond Today: The Inspiration of James Rhio O’Connor
I am nearly 99% sure that one day I will have cancer. This is not some childhood premonition, a weird reoccurring dream or some strange, spontaneous pain in my liver that causes me to think such an awful thought. Rather, it is the ever looming knowledge that melanoma runs in my family. It has been passed down from my grandfather to my mother and more than likely me, eventually. Today I do not have to face this situation, but with every dermatologist appointment and every biopsy he takes, I feel a deep, sick pain in the pit of my stomach. I am nineteen years old. I am a sophomore in college. I have big dreams. I want to change the world. Today I do not have cancer. Tomorrow, I might.
She first noticed it one summer day while on vacation. “Does this look strange to you?” my mother asked, pointing to the tiny brown dot sitting right above her ankle. I glanced up from my book, gave her a two-second glance, and flippantly responded, “nope,” before greedily re-entering my latest beach novel. Two weeks later I walked in on her staring at the dot again. “I swear it looks different,” she insisted, her brow slightly furrowed. My mother, while not a hypochondriac, is definitely hyper-aware of all medical anomalies. As a nurse and parent, she is immersed in the healthcare world, completely up to date on the latest vaccines, medical breakthroughs and research. After her father was diagnosed with melanoma, celiac disease and esophageal cancer within one year, my mother became even more aware of her family’s health. A year ago, the dot would have been dismissed in a heartbeat. Now, my mom was making an appointment with her dermatologist, just in case. I remember my mother coming home from work one day and sobbing before she could take off her coat. They had called her at work. That tiny dot was cancer. And not just “skin cancer” but melanoma.
Few people realize that skin cancer can actually be deadly. The average citizen associates skin cancer with basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma, clumps of cancerous cells that, while dangerous, rarely prove fatal. Such cells can simply be removed and the skin will heal completely normal. Melanoma is a different monster entirely. It spreads quickly and quietly across the largest organ of the body, vertically sinking beneath the skin and spreading to the lymph nodes, liver, lungs and brain. Melanoma can kill a person within weeks of diagnosis simply because a tiny external dot could actually be thousands of internal cancerous cells, rapidly and silently multiplying for months or perhaps years. My mother was terrified. Should she have worried before? How long had the cancer existed? The whole family was a in a panic. The doctor recommended surgery to remove a chunk of flesh around the mole, a wide excision to hopefully remove all the cancerous cells or at least determine how far it had spread. I will always remember the day my dad removed my mom’s bandages, weeks after the surgery. It was the first and only time I had ever seen my hero, the strongest women I have ever known, sob uncontrollably. She could barely sit up and kept pushing my dad’s hands away. She was terrified at seeing her now disfigured and mangled leg. It was more than a wound; my mom had cancer and would now be reminded physically of it every time she so much as looked down to tie her shoe.
My family had to face the very tough but plausible questions; what would we do if the cancer had spread? What if our fears become reality? My father couldn’t take care of my brother and I; he could barely make beef stew on his own. Rhio O’Connor was given the horrifying news that is every cancer patient’s worse nightmare. At age sixty-one, Rhio was told by doctors that not only was his body infected with mesothelioma cancer, cancer of the mesothelium membrane that covers most internal organs, but that he had one year to live. The doctors suggested he ‘get his affairs in order and take his wife on a nice cruise.’ But Rhio did not take to this news kindly or passively. Instead, Rhio fought and outlived his prognosis by nearly seven years. It was Rhio’s stubborn, persistent and passionate will to live that kept him from giving up and giving in. Chemotherapy, radiation, and deadlines were not available options. Instead, Rhio researched, he sought second, third, fourth opinions. He exercised, altered his food, body, mind and spirit. Rhio’s prognosis was horrific, his story edifying, and his courage, strength, and determination inspiring.
Luckily, my mom’s cancer was detected early enough. However, melanoma is not a one-time cancer; those diagnosed once have a high recurrence rate, especially if they are genetically predisposed as my mother is. I am blonde hair, blue eyed, freckled, mole-ridden and as pale as my ancestors from the mountains of Poland. In high school, the local Peace Corps recruiter took one look at me said I my skin wouldn’t survive any third world work. I am a perfect target, the ideal candidate, a time bomb, a haven for the beast known as melanoma. This knowledge both comforts and terrifies me. I go to the dermatologist more than any young person I know and during the summer I smell permanently of sunscreen. I check my body frequently for new spots, note any irregularities and I am a self-declared expert on shapes, sizes and pigmentation of ‘normal’ moles. But no matter how many precautions I take, I know that the monster is looming. I must be prepared for the one day when a mole is removed and the prognosis is not good but rather my greatest fear. I will attempt to accept the news as gracefully as possible, and then begin my counter attack. I am far too educated and passionate about life to ever let cancer slow me down let alone defeat me. Like Rhio, I will exam all my options. Doctors are not infallible and can never be 100% correct. I am willing and able to do the research above and beyond what medical professionals tell me. We are all human beings and we are all flawed. As my mother taught me, there are no absolutes. With enough patience, courage and prayer, anything is possible. I never understood how characters in classic English novels could simply decide to die, months after bringing a difficult child into the world or ending a romantic rendezvous with a lover. I’ve recently realized that life is a choice. We decide how far we want to go and how much we are willing to take. Our bodies are only shells of our capacity and capabilities. It is the soul, spirit and mind that truly determines our fate and future. Rhio refused to give in until he was ready and at peace with himself and his life. Cancer may pillage and plunder my body, may make me sick, weak and afraid. However, like Rhio, I refuse to let a dire prognosis or the suggestions of fallible men determine my fate.
Knowledge will be my supreme advantage in any and all future trials and tribulations. Melanoma may be a monster, but it is a known monster. My family is more than aware of its capabilities and, most importantly, its weakness. Prevention and control are the most useful weapons in controlling cancer. Extensive personal research, whether it be online, at the library, or simple phone calls and emails to doctors and survivors are key in dealing with not only the facts of cancer, but also in comforting and preparing the soul for the long battles ahead. Words of encouragement are the most precious and uplifting gifts that one person can give to another. Alone with a single candle, the room appears dark. Surrounded by friends, family and strangers, the room positively glows. Rhio understood the power of hope. It is the encouragement of other’s that inspires this hope. His story in itself is a testimony to the power of optimism and faith. If we succumb to pessimism and defeatism, the battle is lost before it even really begins. If, however, we maintain a sense of power and strength, believe in the words and wisdom of others, and are willing to fight with every fiber of our body and spirit, the monster can be destroyed. Cancer is, without a doubt, a very real and serious disease. But it is also manageable and knowable. Knowledge, love and sheer will to live helped James Rhio O’Connor battle his cancer. I am nineteen years old and one day I might have to face the same battle. With an army already behind me, I am strong.