James “Rhio” O’Connor Memorial Scholarship Essay by Rebecca Clements

Often times, when a person is diagnosed with cancer, they are given an “expiration date”: a certain number of months or years that they have left to live. Patients are then faced with a choice: they can choose to let their “expiration date” spark fear and control their life or they can choose to fight back. James “Rhio” O’Connor was one cancer patient that chose to not let fear dictate his healing. Rhio was diagnosed with a cancer called mesothelioma, which was considered incurable. Upon hearing that he only had one year left to live, he developed his own unique plan for healing that incorporated a healthy diet and mind-body medicine, among other non-traditional therapies. His strategies may be seen by some as alternative or unsafe, but he outlived his “expiration date” by more than six and a half years.

Rhio was sixty-one years old when he was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma in 2001. Mesothelioma is a rare cancer that is found in cells of the lining of many internal organs called the mesothelium (www.survivingmesothelioma.com). About 2,000 new cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed in the United States each year. The type of mesothelioma that Rhio had is found in the lining of the lungs and chest, and was caused by exposure to asbestos. Conventional treatment of mesothelioma (which usually includes three major approaches: surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy) was not an option for Rhio. The typical course of treatments would not have improved his condition and would have likely decreased his quality of life. Instead, Rhio turned to alternative approaches. These methods, in combination with his optimism and determination, allowed him to live until the age of sixty-nine in 2009.

The treatment plan that Rhio used is considered unorthodox by many. Alternative therapies such as the use of vitamins, herbs, and mind-body medicine are not as well-tested or as regulated as conventional medicine. Some alternative medicines, therefore, are considered unsafe. One reason that alternative therapies are not as well-tested or regulated is that most of these substances are naturally occurring, and therefore cannot be easily patented. It costs researchers and pharmaceutical companies enormous amounts of money to test and develop a drug, and if they cannot patent the drug, they generally do not focus their money or efforts on studying its effectiveness and safety.

Regardless of the lack of regulation of certain alternative therapies, many cancer survivors attest to their powerful and beneficial effects. When people like Rhio are faced with a deadly prognosis, they do not give up hope and instead they choose to turn to these alternative therapies despite their lack of FDA approval. Patients should talk to their doctors about other approaches outside of the typical trio of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, and should do research for themselves, as well. The website www.survivingmesothelioma.com provides guidelines that help patients understand medical literature and judge the accuracy of various studies. Some examples of controversial alternative therapies include the use of plants and herbs such as Cat’s Claw or mistletoe, vitamin C therapy, ozone therapy, or semi-synthetic drugs like Ukrain, that combine herbs with chemotherapeutic drugs.

According to www.survivingmesothelioma.com, there was little to no improvement in survival rates for patients diagnosed with mesothelioma between 1974 and 2001. In addition, cancer in general is one of the most deadly diagnoses worldwide, and is the leading cause of death in the United States for people under the age of 85. It is clear that conventional medicine alone is not as successful as it could be in conquering cancer. Sometimes traditional therapies are not an option, or if they are an option they may not be effective for certain patients. Although there is much fear and skepticism that surrounds the use of alternative medicine, it is important that doctors and patients do not completely eliminate these options from their healing strategies. It is crucial that patients understand all of their options when they build their individual therapeutic regime, and this understanding can be achieved through objective discussions with their doctors and through reading medical literature and research publications. Most importantly, however, patients should keep a positive attitude. Like James “Rhio” O’Connor, patients should not let their “expiration date” control their life. Although Rhio is no longer alive, he continues to teach a valuable lesson: to never give up hope. Because of the optimism and persistent hope that Rhio possessed, he was able to greatly outlive his prognosis and serve as an example for other cancer patients and their families.