JAMES “RHIO” O’CONNOR MEMORIAL SCHOLARSHIP ESSAY BY LEANNA TRAVIS: JANUARY 2016 SUBMISSION

There’s nothing more jarring than staring into a mirror and not recognizing yourself. After four months of grueling chemotherapy and radiation for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, my father’s body was a distorted image of what he remembered. He was weak, suffering from severe neuropathy, and wasting away before his own eyes, as he weighed in at 6-foot-2 and 156 pounds. But this was not how he wanted to die. In that moment of looking at himself in the mirror, my father decided to take control of his life. From that point forward, he was able to recover remarkably well from his traditional treatments in large part because he stayed in tune with his body. My mother, a clinical dietitian, started cooking more vegetarian-based meals (and he started eating them). My father practiced Tai Chi, sought out physical therapy, meditated, and committed himself to exercising and staying active as often as possible.

In this sense, my Dad’s journey was similar to James “Rhio” O’Connor’s. O’Connor battled pleural mesothelioma due to his early exposure to asbestos, a toxic mineral that was once used heavily in commercial products (“What is Asbestos?”). Pleural mesothelioma is a cancer caused by the calcification of plaques in the pleural lining of the lungs. The thickening of the pleura is often caused by asbestos (“Pleural Mesothelioma”). Unfortunately because of the rarity of the cancer and its location in O’Connor’s chest cavity, he was not able to receive surgery to remove it. In response to his diagnosis, O’Connor sought out alternative methods to improve his health and prolong his life. My father’s case was slightly different, he continued to receive traditional applications of chemotherapy and radiation while seeking out alternative methods for recovery; this created a combination therapy of Western and alternative methods.

In O’Connor’s book, Mesothelioma Survivor’s Story, he describes his diet which was low in animal products, sugars and refined foods, and high in vegetables, organics and whole foods. Our family, much like O’Connor, eats a primarily vegetarian diet and we do our best to avoid processed products (although brownies are an occasional treat). In addition to the medicines prescribed by his oncologist, my Dad eats a diet high in anti-inflammatory foods, which allows his body to function at its optimal level, making him less susceptible to relapse and giving him more energy to enjoy work, hobbies and family time. And of course the rest of our family is benefitting from our change in diet—we now have more energy to keep up with him!

But eating healthfully is not the only solution; keeping your mind connected to your body is crucial to maintaining bodily awareness. Being conscious of how your body moves, feels and functions in any given space is an integral concept of mindfulness, or creating the mind-body connection. O’Connor believed that what we think can nourish our minds, and when our minds are supported and healthy, our entire bodies thrive. My Dad has found this connection in Tai Chi, where he is forced to concentrate solely on moving through the positions and being fully aware of his body in space. This has improved his balance, coordination, muscle control, and concentration.

Both nutrition and mindfulness are methods of healing that should be more heavily encouraged and offered in clinical settings in addition to traditional methods of medicine. Mindfulness is starting to gain traction in preventive medicine as well as treatment for varying illnesses, such as cancer. As the health care system continues to become more focused on keeping people out of the hospital, and minimizing overall expenses, mind-body medicine will begin to gain serious momentum. For this reason, more research is being conducted on the impact of mindfulness-based techniques of health, and the results are promising. Recent studies have shown that meditation practices can positively improve brain and immune function in human subjects (Davidson), which is data that could support including meditation sessions for both in and outpatients in hospitals to improve recovery and preventing people from relapsing.

For doctors to encourage a mind-body connection would completely change the experience of cancer patients. For most of my Dad’s time at the hospital, he was almost completely thought of in terms of his blood counts, his kidney functions, and his steroid dosages. Data is incredibly important to chemotherapy and keeping patients alive, but I observed a severe lack of referrals by his doctors to mind-body medicinal practitioners who could have been extremely supportive to my father as he recovered physically and mentally from such grueling treatment. As most cancer patients may attest to, battling cancer is severely disruptive to one’s ability to feel safe and secure in the body, so it is crucial that they are consistently exposed to mindfulness techniques to maintain a sense of self physically, mentally and spiritually. With more support from physicians, more research will be conducted on alternative methods, which will in turn spur an even greater movement towards holistic medicine. The health care system needs more physicians who are interested in mind-body medicine because without their support, research will not be demanded.

After hearing about O’Connor’s story and witnessing my Dad’s battle through cancer, I became determined to learn more about how holistic medicine is applied in health care settings. I sought out an internship with a small integrative wellness center in Vermont. My experiences included preparing and cooking meals with an autistic woman, painting and drawing with a hospice patient with dementia, assisting in physical therapy appointments with patients afflicted with neurological disorders, and learning how to find mindfulness amid dance and movement. These experiences and others have showed me how medicine can be applied in a holistic manner, where the entire individual – including their emotional, spiritual and physical selves – are considered when they are in recovery. After my internship I am more motivated than ever to become a physician committed to changing the experience of patients in need of care. I understand the importance of the hard sciences, and as a neuroscience major, I love my studies. But I also want to encourage people to seek out alternative methods in addition to traditional medicine because I have witnessed how drastic a change they can make when applied together.

I am now certain that my career goals in medicine will incorporate alternative methods and I hope that you will support me in my studies to achieve my goal of making alternative methods more integral to the health care system.

References

Early, James F. “Pleural Mesothelioma.” Mesothelioma.com. n.d. Web. 07 Sept. 2015.

Early, James F. “What is Asbestos?” Mesothelioma.com. n.d. Web. 07 Sept. 2015.

Davidson, Richard J., Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jessica Schumacher, Melissa Rosenkranz, Daniel Muller, Saki F. Santorelli, Ferris Urbanowski, Anne Harrington, Katherine Bonus, and John F. Sheridan. "Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation." Psychosomatic Medicine 65.4 (2003): 564-70. Web.