James Rhio O’Connor Memorial Scholarship Essay
Kayleigh R. Sechi
“Don’t waste your money on the quacks.”
This is what James Rhio O’Connor was told in response to his questions about investigating alternative medicine. He has learned weeks earlier that he had cancer, and waited several more weeks for an oncologist to return from vacation to provide further information about his illness. The oncologist explained that he had mesothelioma and suggested that O’Connor and his wife enjoy the few months that he had left to live as nothing could be done to save him. O’Connor would say years later that he was only left with the name of his disease and many questions. It was now up to him to find the answers, “Deep in my heart, I knew I would be okay and that I would survive.”
It was during the most historically successful period of the tobacco industry in the United States that James Rhio O’Connor was born. Researchers were only beginning to consider that external sources may cause various cancers. The health effects of lethal substances were invisible: there was no gun fire and no sound of explosions in the distance that the world has learned to fear during the Second World War. The effects of tobacco and other cancer causing substances, called carcinogens, were initially silent until terrible illness would manifest later in the lives of thousands of people. O’Connor was diagnosed with mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos much earlier in his life.
It was not until 1971, the same year that President Nixon declared the war on cancer, that subsequent controlled clinical trials confirmed that mesothelioma, a cancer of the lungs, which was appearing in people working in certain professions, was caused by exposure to asbestos. The United States was simultaneously in a battle against tobacco. Just as tobacco companies had information about the health dangers of smoking for years before admitting the risks of cigareete smoking, employers had known since the early 1900’s that workers exposed to asbestos suffered health problems and eventually death. Asbestos was present for the majority of the twentieth century in the materials used by professions such as insulation and fireproof materials used by heat technicians and firefighters. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned the use of asbestos in 1989 citing it as a carcinogen. With an illness that has been the subject of so much injustice, how could Rhio O’Connor hope to battle it without the help of conventional medicine?
After I had emergency transplant surgery, I came to recover with my family at a house in central Massachusetts where people stayed to recover from illness; many of them facing a cancer diagnosis. Every morning, we would walk downstairs, usually with the aid of a family member, and into the kitchen. Just to reach the kitchen was a serious accomplishment. We would attempt to eat, and begin the daily regimen of medications, clinic appointments, testing, procedures, and medication changes. It was wearing and surreal, but at least we were not alone. Cancer is a strange animal. It is not an external enemy. Instead it alters the cells inside the body, changing normal cells into an out of control system that is unable to stop growth.
But if cancer cells are simply our own cells twisted into an out of hand version of their original form, then could we somehow slow the process by helping them to remember how to return to their natural state? If cancer is inherently a part of us, then there must be a way to communicate with the disease. Rhio O’Connor realized this early in his diagnosis and turned to nature in hopes of helping his body to remember its former healthy state.
O’Connor realized that the fight against cancer that we often encourage through conventional medicine may be better approached by working with the disease through alternative medicine. Just as all of us were happy to not be alone in the recovery house, the human body does better with a synergistic approach than an abrasive one. With the help of alternative practitioners, he created a program specified for his own body that included a healthy diet with supplement and vitamin and a healthy lifestyle. If there was no way to kill the cancer cells, then he certainly returned the memory of their healthy state. After being told he had months to live, Rhio lived for six more years.
Conventional medicine is surrounded by charts and statistics attempting to represent human response to medical treatment. There is no doubt that it has saved many people, but it is also clear that this information cannot account for the individual patient. Every person is different and has a unique genetic sequence, and therefore every time cancer begins the corruption of normal DNA, that cancer must intrinsically become unique as well. It is only logical to assess a cancer case as an individual. This is what O’Connor and his physicians did and it is why he was able to find an individualized method to allow him to live for years longer than expected.
As we have become aware of the benefits of healthy lifestyle, average lifespan has increased and we see the development of more cancers like mesothelioma that take years to manifest. Conventional medicine is responsible for many vaccination developments, and alternative medicine is responsible for our increasing awareness of lifestyle changes. The combination of preventative medicine such as vaccinations and alternative medicine working together is the ideal situation, but it must be individualized. At one time, surgeons treated breast cancer patients with identical large-scale mastectomies. Today, we can use the scanning techniques of convention nuclear medicine as a preventative measure, and then determine what route or combination or routes suits the individual patient.
Those of us who have survived illness know that we are attentively instructed to follow directions. However, when it comes to questions about alternative medicine or quality of life, we are often left alone. Rhio O’ Connor found support from those who agreed to help him find a way to live against a supposedly dead-end diagnosis. O’ Connor was right to question the original conclusion and lived for six years after being told he had mesothelioma thanks to his own perseverance and “the quacks” of alternative medicine the oncologist has told him to forget about. Patient care must be comprehensive. We must treat individuals and I feel fortunate to learn this before entering medical school. We should never give up on saving a life because as Rhio said, “There is always a tomorrow, but never a yesterday.”
For more information on Rhio O'Connor and mesothelioma, please visit www.survivingmesothelioma.com