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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Choosing Years

Guest post by Tera Rooney

This essay is being submitted to the James Rhio O’Connor Memorial Scholarship Essay Contest. At age 61, Mr. O’Connor was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma as a result of an asbestos exposure in his youth. Doctors gave him a year to live and no options for treatment. He chose to take their year and multiply it by eight. He did this by formulating his own plan for treatment and the belief in a greater power. Putting myself in his shoes, this is my story.

“I’ve given your labwork to a doctor in oncology. Things aren’t looking good, many people with this type of disease only survive a year.” Dr. Williams says soberly.

“But oncology, isn’t that like, cancer,” my mother asks, ringing in my ears more like a statement rather than a question.

At twenty-two, with a grim prognosis, words like aspiration, promyelocytic, and radiation fall to the ground like meteors from the sky. The drive home is long and silent. As we pull into the driveway of my college dwelling, I have realized that my immediate family has arrived and probably taken over the couches in the living room. Walking into the dimly lit room, I see blank faces of pity. Not a word is spoken; nothing needs to be said. I spend the night alone searching the Internet, finding the best doctors, reviewing the cases, comparing the different treatments and relating to the blogs.

“Hey, we didn’t expect to see you here today. Are you sure you don’t want to stay home a few more days?” Professor Riley urges.

“I need things to be normal,” I reply shortly.

Attending class between chemo treatments is only a problem on days when we are working in the lab. For some reason, the smell of formaldehyde encourages my gag reflex to stand at attention. Everyone expects me to reach out. Everyone expects me to break down. Nobody seems to understand the importance of me attending class, doing homework and putting in hours at the clinic. Don’t I have better things to do, like sulk at home after treatment watching soap operas? Nobody seems to understand; yet it is a common reaction. When the Holiday season is over and the hustle and bustle has everyone cranky, does a mother not wish everything back to normal? When the rainfall is low and the crop yields are lower, does a farmer not wish the weather back to normal? When an aspiring doctor falls to her knees upon hearing her cancer diagnosis, out of habit she wishes her life back to normal. Maybe it is in the search of normalcy, that we find peace in our situation.

“He’s heartbroken, sweetheart,” my father pleads, “he wants more than anything to give you the wedding of your dreams. Call it, something to look forward to. For all of us.”

“Dad, before the cancer I had plans, I have dreams – mile markers to reach before turning down a different road. I will marry him when I finish school.”

Neither of us mentions the obvious. Like an elephant in the room, both of us end the conversation on the thought that I won’t live long enough to finish school.

Turning down a marriage proposal is nothing I ever expected to do. I especially did not expect to do it from a hospital bed. My family thinks that a special day devoted only to me will make everything all better…that if I accomplish some of my goals in life, then it won’t be so hard to realize that I never got the chance to accomplish the rest. What they have failed to realize is that my goals were set in a deliberate sequence. They have failed to realize that I wanted to graduate before I married. They can’t convince the dean but my boyfriend, now there’s a sucker we can persuade.

I wish I had started this whole journey differently. I would have sat down my family and explained to them how I would deal with my cancer. There are principles that I would need to cling to, and having their support would mean they needed to agree with those principles. Being the hardheaded, driven person that I am, my first principle would be to do my own research. Knowing that doctors are also human, I would want to know as much about my disease as they do. Going along with treatment plans would not be easy for me. I am the kind of person who needed to be immersed in the process of writing the plans. Secondly, I would cling to normalcy. Going about my life in a normal way, would help me to keep focused on fighting rather than overwhelmed with a prognosis. Finishing school and even excelling at it would be one of my top priorities of leading a normal life. Finally, I am goal-driven and my passion to accomplish my goals keeps me going. My goals are deliberate and follow a timeline. In the darkest days, I would need to remember the importance behind this drive and not cut corners for my future.

“Looking around the group of graduates at our commencement, with everyone dressed identically, a girl in the front row stands out among the homogenous class. It’s not that I am bald beneath this mortarboard, or that a shiny solitaire is fixed on my left hand. I stand out because I should’ve been absent from this special day. Science says I shouldn’t have lived to receive my diploma,” I say to my parents in between smiling for the camera.

“Yes, but it wasn’t in your plans to give up,” my father replies as a tear runs down his cheek.

For more information on Mr. O'Connor and his cancer, mesothelioma, please visit:

1 comment:

  1. Reading this essay after returning from the gym where the power was non existent, rather puts things in perspective. Who cares about a runny nose and itchy throat?
    Each day is a total gift and certainly that does include today. This will be copied and given to our friends' to give to their neighbor with sarcoma.
    California aunt