Vollmer, Laura | Surviving Mesothelioma

Vollmer, Laura

Being told you have cancer is quite possibly one of the scariest things a person can hear. This is because society has shaped the word cancer to coincide with words such as “incurable” and “fatal”. However, I believe that cancer can mean “inspiration”, because being diagnosed can inspire someone to live their life in a healthier, happier, and more meaningful way.

When James “Rhio” O’Connor was diagnosed in October 2001 with pleural mesothelioma, or “Mr. Meso” as he referred to it, he chose to stand up to cancer instead of backing down. After his diagnosis, he began a quest to better his quality of life, and the journey that he took was inspirational for many others struggling with cancer. Rhio’s cancer was caused by his exposure to asbestos when he was a child. The pleura, which is the lining of the lungs, is comprised of two layers that protect the lungs and chest cavity. Pleural mesothelioma develops when asbestos fibers are inhaled and become trapped in the spaces between the mesothelial cells, which are located in the pleura.

With less than a year to live, and with surgery not an option due to the close position of the tumor to his spine, Rhio could have given up. Instead, he realized that life doesn’t end after a diagnosis. Since chemotherapy would not have extended his life by a significant amount of time and instead would have decreased his quality of life, he chose not to undergo the process. Rhio turned to professional clinicians to formulate a treatment that consisted of over 100 daily supplements. He also changed his diet and practiced mind-body medicine techniques. He developed this routine from his extensive research and numerous conversations with doctors, researchers, and other cancer patients. These changes, in addition to his determination to stand up to cancer, helped Rhio to live for seven and a half years from the time he wasdiagnosed, despite the fact that doctors estimated that he only had one year left. His story is truly inspiring, and is chronicled in his book, “They Said Months, I Chose Years: A Mesothelioma Survivor’s Story.” This book serves as a reminder that chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery are not the only options that patients with cancer have. Choosing a treatment method a patient truly believes in is the most important goal of all. Rhio passed away in July 2009, but his memory and inspiration will remain for many years to come.

Rhio’s story serves to remind us all of the importance of taking your fate into your own hands. I have another person in my life who has a similar story to Rhio’s and inspires me as well. In October 2007, my Nana was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. Her diagnosis included the prediction that she had only one to two years more to live, if she was lucky. As a woman who never smoked, rarely drank, and ate healthfully her whole life, it came as a huge shock to her and the rest of our family. I was away at school at the time, and it is difficult to describe the feeling I felt when I received the call from my mom telling me my Nana was just diagnosed with cancer. I felt a multitude of emotions not only because I did not want my Nana to have to face all of the difficulties of being diagnosed with cancer, but also because I could not realistically be there with her at that time. My first instinct was to cancel my tests, grab my coat, and jump on a bus and go home, but my mom wouldn’t let me. She said that she and my Nana were not going to let cancer take over their lives, and therefore it wasn’t going to take over mine either. They were going to fight it and it was as simple as that. Much like Rhio, my family found empowerment through gaining knowledge about lung cancer. We spent countless nights, me on my computer at school, and them on the computer at home, researching chemotherapies, surgery, radiation, and many alternative therapies. My mom and Nana also went to see three different top rated oncologists to get opinions on the best course of action. The one that was ultimately chosen placed an emphasis on the importance of medical treatment as well as spiritual and nutrient treatment. Chemotherapy was chosen as the main medical treatment, but my Nana decided to supplement it by taking about 50 vitamins and minerals daily, eating foods rich with antioxidants and nutrients, and enjoying activities and hobbies to relieve stress and tension (much like the mind-body therapy Rhio used). Thankfully, my Nana is still winning the battle against cancer almost three years after being diagnosed.

The lessons I have learned from Rhio and my Nana have caused me to realize that while medical treatment is important for cancer, when applicable, the treatments you can do on your own are just as important. I think it is empowering to know that every day you can wake up and take active steps towards fending off cancer growth such as taking vitamins, eating well, exercising, and trying to maintain a stress-free lifestyle. Looking beyond simply enduring chemo treatments, for instance, puts the cure for cancer into your own hands. If I were faced with the same challenges as Rhio and my Nana, I would first be sure to set up a good support system of people who loved me to help me through treatments. My family has never allowed my Nana to receive chemotherapy by herself. Always having a friend or family member with you is a constant reminder that her battle with cancer is not one that she has to face alone. I make sure that whenever I am home from college, I am the one to go with my Nana. While I am there to support her, I like to be able to ask the doctor questions I have about her cancer. I feel that being knowledgeable is being empowered, and therefore it is important for me to keep up to date with the newest information. Rhio’s story has also made me realize that there are many medical journals and studies out there that are published every year containing powerful information and alternative treatment methods that should be explored. Between the internet, books, medical journals, and the advice of doctors, family, and friends, it is important to formulate a treatment method that is right for the patient.

This semester at school, I am taking a class called Psycho-Physiological Awareness. The class is meant to develop awareness and appreciation of the human body. Some of the most interesting topics of the class include mind vs. matter, meditation, relaxation, nutrition and weight control, and cardiovascular system and stress management. The knowledge I am gaining through this class, and my own research, has inspired me to change my diet and exercise more, as well as learn to manage my stress better. I was inspired to take this class because, while Rhio and my Nana serve as great examples that life can still be fulfilling and happy after a cancer diagnosis, the best cancer treatment of all is to live a healthy lifestyle in order to not get it in the first place.

Rhio’s story serves to inspire all people touched with cancer. Not only is cancer not a death sentence, but it can serve as inspiration to lead a healthier, more fulfilling life. Many different treatment options are available for all types of cancer, and each treatment combination should be tailored to best suite the patient. Rhio didn’t let Mr. Meso get him down, and he demonstrates that you don’t have to either.

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