James “Rhio” O’Connor was a man who truly beat the odds. He went beyond just beating statistics and prognosis—he beat expectations of what a human is capable of.
O’Connor was diagnosed with one of the most deadly forms of cancer: mesothelioma. It attacks the protective lining of bodily organs, and is considered one of the most aggressive forms of cancer. Patients are typically faced with short life expectancies after the diagnosis has been made. O’Connor was one of these patients. Being told that he only had a year left once the cancer was found, he set out to beat the odds. O’Connor took his treatment into his own hands, researching methods of treatment as well as leading the fight himself against his cancer. Because of this proactive attitude, accompanied by a real understanding of what he was up against, O’Connor defied what doctors believed he could do: he survived for over six years.
O’Connor’s death cannot be viewed as “just another cancer victim”—he conquered the ravaging of his own body by incorporating a new element: determination.
His strength in spirit provided strength to his body, and would not let the cancer win. He was determined to understand what was going on within him, determined to decide for himself what kind of treatment he would undergo, and, perhaps most importantly, he was determined to not give up. O’Connor did not subscribe to the idea that he was a ticking time bomb, set for a year. These attitudes inspire me to approach my life in a new way, cancer-free or not.
O’Connor made the first proactive step early on, which most likely affected his outliving his prognosis by so long. He understood what mesothelioma was. Rather than relying on doctors to lead him through his journey, O’Connor researched the cancer to understand not just what it was, but what options were available to him. I think this is something that should be applied into all our lives. Too often, we allow ourselves to simply be carried through processes. In O’Connor’s case, he could have very easily accepted that the doctors he was consulting with had medical degrees, and he did not, so he would just have to wait between appointments to know what was going on. Instead, he applied himself to understanding each step. This allowed him not only to recognize the effects of his mesothelioma, but make decisions in it as well. He had an influence that his doctors never could have—not only did he come to understand the research and treatment options, but he was also able to apply this on a deeply personal level. O’Connor was able to take his treatment in the direction he wanted it to go, based on what he felt his body would respond to best (and worst). While a doctor may be able to measure the workings of our body, the aspect of personal intuition is lost.
Although most might be intimidated by perusing something that is relatively unknown to them, let alone in any great depth, O’Connor made it effective by focusing on one topic. Although he did not have the breadth of medical knowledge his doctors did, he got involved in understanding the one aspect he truly needed to: mesothelioma. With this knowledge, he was able to take his treatment in the path he could feel it needed to go. Imagine the difference it would make if we all understood the path we were on, if we all took it into our own hands. Life could be greatly enriched if we truly understood the way it was affecting us. Being self-aware, being knowledgeable in what we let enter our minds and bodies will strengthen us. Rather than being blindly influenced by the decisions and institutions of others, a proactive approach in the direction we are taking our lives will give us not only a better understanding of self, but also a better perspective of that direction itself. And, like O’Connor, we will be able to make the decision if it is the right direction for us, or not.
What is also tremendously remarkable about the life of O’Connor is something that sounds simple but requires a vast amount of courage. He never gave up. The diagnosis he was given was terrifying—imagine being faced with one year left to live, let alone a year of your body deteriorating, and think of how fast that year would go by. Rather than seeing his finish line and continuing to move towards it, O’Connor believed that there was much more on the horizon. He lived his life in an ever-remarkably optimistic way. And with this attitude, his mind would not leave his body behind. It carried O’Connor onwards, and passed the “finish line” doctors had given him. Not by a matter or months, or even a year. He lived for over six years after being told he had a mere one.
The saying “mind over matter” might be so commonplace that we do not consider it to be much more than perhaps an old wives’ tale in itself, but utilizing this saying into our lives really could influence our lives in incredible new ways. O’Connor had a perspective of beginnings, not endings. He was beginning a difficult battle in his life, but he was not slowly coming to an end because of this battle. I feel that if I were in O’Connor’s situation, this would be the attitude I would adopt. Throughout my treatment, I would continue to set goals. I would still do the things that were important to me, even if I had to do them in a different way. Volunteer work has always been a part of my life, and I would not let cancer take this away from me—I would continue to serve others, even if it was in a different way than I was used to. If I no longer had the strength to do physical volunteer work, I would incorporate another form into my life, such as reading stories to hospitalized children in the pediatrics wing when I was undergoing treatment, sharing my encouragement with others. Having an attitude that there is a future, not an end, provides a strength the body cannot. O’Connor was certain that there was more going on that he could see, and with this outlook, outlived what any doctors could foresee.
What stands out most to be as something not just to consider if I were in the position of O’Connor, but as something to be constantly aware of in day-to-day life, healthy or not, is the thought of ourselves as multidimensional beings. I do not believe anything could be so thoroughly understood or achieved, if we forget this. We are more than just bodies, we have mental and emotional components. In a battle against cancer, I would continue to nourish these aspects of myself. Whether it be educating myself in what I was fighting, or continuing to stimulate myself with literature and art, long-time loves of mine, I would not neglect my mind in a physical battle. Again, I would also continue to feed the emotional parts of my being. I would continue to spend time with loved ones to grow the connection I have with others, and I would nurture my spirituality as well. Although facing cancer might seem like a purely bodily endeavor at surface level, O’Connor proved the effect approaching the being as a composition of more than just physical can make all the difference in the battle against cancer.
O’Connor can serve as an inspiration to cancer patients, to loved ones of cancer patients, and to those who will live their lives without a single encounter with cancer alike. What makes his strength so remarkable is that it transcends the realm of cancer. Strength of character, self-assertion, and the pursuit of knowledge has purpose in all of our lives. Should I ever be diagnosed with cancer myself, I know that O’Connor’s life will encourage me that I am not someone with an expiration date: I have the power to take my life into my own hands. Should I not ever be diagnosed with cancer, that message will still resonate just as clearly—life is not to be taken for granted, and as much hard work as it may include, it can help us defy the odds ourselves.