(The following article was prepared and posted by me as part of a college scholarship essay contest. Comments are welcome.)
James “Rhio” O’Connor was a man that was fighting for his life against a monstrous cancer called Mesothelioma. “Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer in which cancerous cells are found in the mesothelium, a protective sac that covers most of the body's internal organs. There are two main types of Mesothelioma - pleural which involves the sac that covers the pleural cavity around the lungs and peritoneal which involves the tissue that covers the abdominal area. The only accepted cause is exposure to asbestos. Asbestos was in thousands of different products so many people were exposed (to) [at] many times in their lives.” ( 1 ) The doctors were not optimistic about Rhio’s ability to survive the disease. He took it upon himself to find and research all information regarding Mesothelioma, its treatment, and its prognosis for survival. His self-acquired knowledge of the illness and its treatments enabled Rhio to make informed decisions that directed his care. Because of his tenacity and fortitude, he survived more than six years beyond the initial one-year prognosis. A memorial scholarship was created in honor of his courage and determination to educate and enlighten others, and to suggest that applicants contemplate what they might do, given a similar diagnosis with similar circumstances.
I do not have to speculate. At the age of 22 during my third year of college, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes with causes unknown. Although the doctors told me that it was one of “the best” cancers to have, meaning it had a high cure rate, it did not diminish the tough treatment and recovery I would experience. It shook me to the core of my Christian faith. My family and I had never dealt with cancer, so we relied on the guidance of the specialists to initiate and continue my care. Although every step was explained to us, we felt as if someone was leading us blindly through a maze of options we did not fully understand. Remission was achieved, and I am a blessed 20-year survivor of that terrible disease!
If that were the end of the story, it would be a marvelous way to close a difficult chapter from my early adulthood. However, in the year 2000 at the age of 33, I fell ill with no explanation. For three months, I saw many specialists regarding my symptoms, yet there were no answers. As my health quickly declined, I finally found a doctor that really listened and cued in on my previous cancer diagnosis. Simple blood tests were ordered, and within 24 hours, Leukemia was suspected to be the cause of my dire symptoms. Within 48 hours of that visit, the hospital admitted me, tests were preformed, and a correct diagnosis became available: Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML). By that time the disease was very advanced, so I had to rely on the judgment of a Hematologist/Oncologist to direct my treatment. There was no time to spare, because I was married and had a young son to consider. Therefore, the most important factor in my situation was to start treatment quickly. My husband vowed to do what ever it took to get me well. After two months of grueling treatment in the hospital, remission was achieved. God performed another miracle on my behalf and once again, I had been given a new chance at life! During the following years, my judgment became clouded with thoughts that everything needed to be done quickly, in case my cancer returned. Fearing relapse is common among cancer survivors. Each disease has a period of remission before the word “cured” can be used, if ever. Some have to wait 5 years; some wait 10 or more. Although my “normal” way of life was nowhere near that of someone my age, I worked to accept my limitations and had faith that the Lord had a plan for my life. Gradually, I regained self-control when making decisions, and became optimistic about the future once again.
In 2007 I turned 40 years old, which was the age recommended for women to begin their yearly mammography screenings. ( 2 ) My risk of Breast Cancer was higher than average, due to the radiation given to treat the Hodgkin’s Disease nearly 20 years earlier. Therefore, in my mind, I would be an old woman when it happened…if it happened. The first screening showed abnormalities. I requested that my doctor arrange for the next screening to take place sooner, rather than later, as the clinic tried to tell me when I called to make an appointment. Knowing that false positives are common in screenings, I tried to stay calm in the interim before the next tests. However, while sitting in the waiting room, I was surrounded by older women who were in hospital gowns, talking about their breast cancer experiences. I prayed that the abnormality on my scans were a mistake, or at least nothing serious. In my head, I was trying to reassure my wandering mind that there was no way for a third cancer to strike so soon. I did not have to wait on test results for very long; I indeed had cancer for a third time! Breast Cancer. This time would be different though. This time, I would find out all of my options for treatment, and with all of the information gathered from the specialists and my own research, I would make the decision that was right for me. Just like Rhio, I was deciding on my own plan to fight against the dreaded disease of cancer.
My husband and I listened to the specialists, and read volumes of information on the subject of Breast Cancer. We accessed information from books, magazines, the web, and my doctors. In the end, it was our decision on how to proceed. I was fortunate to have more than one option, since the disease was caught by early detection. Surgery, regular check ups, and daily oral medication for 5 years is the extent of my treatment. I am so thankful I was spared anything worse, because I have already had a lifetime maximum of chemotherapy and radiation. My concern now turns to the recent recommendation that women do not need to start their mammography screening until the age of 50. There are many cases like mine--young women finding breast cancer during their 40‘s, or earlier. If the practice of self exam and routine mammograms at an early age are discontinued, many people will suffer needlessly. In fact, if I had waited until I was 50 to have my first mammogram, I would have been dead. There would be no options. My life would have ended long before it should have, and that is not right. I think that James “Rhio” O’Connor would agree with me if he was still living. His example of taking control when the odds were against him should be a shining example to all of us to take control of our own health care needs and never give up. Never.
1 Surviving Mesothelioma: A Patient’s Guide. “Mesothelioma Summary.”
Web. 8 December 2009
2 Recently, there has been a recommendation from the from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, Maryland, to start routine mammogram screening at the age of 50, and to stop teaching self examination entirely.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, Maryland. “Summary of Recommendations and Evidence.”
Annuls of Internal Medicine 17 November 2009; vol. 151 no. 10 716-726.
Web. 9 December 2009