by Sarah Schrader
James “Rhio” O’Connor did not know. He, and the millions of other Americans exposed at work, in their communities, or even in their own homes did not know that asbestos, used for decades in the manufacture of products from cars to roofs to crayons, could cause cancer. After being diagnosed with mesothelioma, an incurable and usually deadly cancer of the double-layered membrane that protects and lubricates the body’s internal organs, sixty-one year old O’Connor did not know how quickly his hourglass would run out. The prognosis was grim – less than a year. Surgery was impossible and chemotherapy would only reduce the quality of the precious little life O’Connor had left. His oncologist suggested that he get his affairs in order and take his wife on one last cruise before bidding the world goodbye (1). When he rejected his doctor’s advice and began researching alternative cancer treatments, O’Connor did not know if the treatment plan he had meticulously concocted would work. All he knew was that he was determined to survive.
And, after adopting a daily regimen of more than 100 vitamin supplements, a diet based on organic and fresh foods like fish and vegetables, and a mind-body medicine routine (2), survive he did – for more than six years longer than his original prognosis. But in a world where one in two American men and one in three American women will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetimes (3), not everyone is as successful as O’Connor in coaxing stolen time away from cancer’s grip. In fact, less than half of those expected to be diagnosed with cancer will survive it, and the survival rates for some cancers, including mesothelioma, are less than 10% (4), particularly if the cancer has already metastasized to other parts of the body by the time it is diagnosed. Since 1971, when President Nixon launched a “war on cancer,” the government-sponsored National Cancer Institute alone has poured out $105 billion dollars to support research efforts. In spite of this, survival rates have crawled upward by only five percent since 1950 (5). Not only have cancer incidence rates failed to improve, but the World Health Organization estimates that global cancer rates could increase 50% by the year 2020 (6).
If so much money is being poured into cancer research, why are incidence rates still expected to skyrocket in the next few years? For a possible explanation, consider the following sampling of chemicals and their known side effects: “Heptachlor – carcinogenic, neurotoxic, reproductive toxin. Lindane – carcinogenic, neurotoxic, damage to blood forming cells. Nitrite – interacts with meat amines to form carcinogenic nitrosamines which are a major risk factor for childhood cancers” (7). It reads like something from a chemistry textbook, the ominous side effects urging you to keep your distance or come armed with a fume hood and gas mask. In reality these are just a few of the compounds that can be found in the standard hot dog – compounds many of us unwittingly expose ourselves to every day as we race through our overly-processed lives. In fact, each second we are constantly assaulted by an increasingly formidable barrage of carcinogens. They lurk in our morning bacon, tag a ride in that post-dinner stick of bubble gum, spew from the cigarette our neighbor on the subway has the audacity to smoke, saturate the foundation we slather over our faces each morning, and unavoidably permeate the very air we all must breathe. It is no wonder that our bodies’ cells, fed up with the constant battle, occasionally stage a mutiny, stealing resources, growing out of control, and spreading until we are consumed by the cancer.
Even if we can pinpoint the factors that cause cancer, that does not offer much comfort to those who have already been stricken by the disease. They are, of course, concerned with their options for treatment. The miracles of modern medicine have reduced heart disease and flu/pneumonia mortality rates both by about two-thirds since 1950, but why have mortality rates for cancer remained roughly constant in that same timeframe despite the abundance of research efforts searching desperately for a cure? Perhaps it is due to the staggering complexity of the more than 100 different maladies all lumped together under the same five letters (8). As scientists delve deeper into researching this deadly collection, it seems that more enigmas are being discovered than solved – what causes cells to mutiny? Which genes mutate to allow them to replicate out of control? How do they metastasize throughout the body?
Before new, more effective treatments can be brought forth to supplement and eventually replace the harsh chemo and radiation therapies that have been hallmarks of cancer treatment for decades, researchers must first forge a holistic understanding of the molecular and genetic mechanisms behind cancer. Two examples of promising research efforts highlight the importance of a thorough mechanistic knowledge base. It is well known that cancerous tumors cannot grow large enough to metastasize without securing a blood supply. They accomplish this by inducing the growth of new blood vessels through angiogenesis, a process which involves complex interactions among many different molecules. Through the elucidation of these pathways, scientists have been able to develop drugs that inhibit the growth of new blood vessels, thereby laying siege to the cancer cells that need them to survive (9). The role another class of molecules, recently-discovered micro RNAs (miRNAs), plays in cancer biology is also under investigation. Although they are still shrouded in mystery, miRNAs are active in regulating gene expression in healthy cells. In cancer cells, they may be responsible for disrupting the function of genes that regulate the cell cycle, leading to the characteristically uncontrolled growth observed in cancer cells (10). As a future physician scientist, I hope through my own research to contribute to the further elucidation of these and other mechanisms that will lead to improved treatments for cancer.
Stories like Rhio O’Connor’s, however, remind us that effective cancer prevention strategies and treatments may also be found outside of the lab. Simply reducing the number of carcinogens we encounter each day, whether through adopting a more natural diet free of highly-processed foods, choosing organically-based cleaning supplies, or taking the time to apply sunscreen before going out in the sun, can have an enormous effect on cancer risk. The striking 70% reduction in lung cancer mortality rate seen in those who quit smoking (11) stands testament. Furthermore, as demonstrated by O’Connor’s self-designed treatment plan, dietary changes, vitamin supplements, and mind-body medicine can prove powerful allies in the fight to survive a cancer prognosis.
The ancient wisdom of traditional Chinese medicine, relatively unknown to Westerners but often used in conjunction with modern chemo and radiation therapy in the East, may hold another key to unlocking the cure to cancer. In Chinese medicine, a healthy individual is seen as embodying a perfect balance in the flow of the vital force called 气(qi). When the proper flow of qi is blocked by various external and internal factors, disease, including cancer, results. Each patient has a unique imbalance, and doctors thus prescribe each an equally unique combination of herbs along with an accompanying diet to boost the therapy’s potency. Various studies have shown that these herbal therapies in conjunction with conventional chemo and radiation therapy are far more effective in prolonging the lives of cancer patients than conventional therapies alone (12).
Chinese medicine also recognizes the supreme power of the mind in healing cancer. An ancient practice known as 气功 (qigong) teaches practitioners to focus their qi, directing it towards the diseased areas of the body to alleviate blockages and regain healthful balance. Although the scientific mechanisms behind this 3000-year-old exercise are not fully understood, many cancer patients have prolonged their lives and still others have been cured completely through qigong therapy (12).
This suggests that our own minds are perhaps our most powerful tools for improving cancer survival rates. While researchers continue to apply their brainpower toward discovering an ultimate cure, individuals, too, can harness this force in their own personal battles against cancer. As he noted in the title of his book They Said Months – I Chose Years, Rhio O’Connor made a conscious decision to fight for his life. He stayed optimistic throughout it all, even jokingly referring to the disease slowly eating away at him as “Mr. Meso.” I remember my own grandfather, diagnosed with Stage IV prostate cancer and given less than two years to live, remaining hopeful until the bitter end not two but four years later that he would live to see me graduate from high school. We will all face our cancer in life – a challenge that seems too hopeless to overcome. But as Rhio O’Connor’s remarkable story demonstrates, there is always hope if we are determined enough to find it, and we can triumph over anything if we only set our minds to it.
Learn more about mesothelioma at: http://www.survivingmesothelioma.com/
Learn more about James “Rhio” O’Connor at: http://www.survivingmesothelioma.com/rhiooconnor.cfm
Sarah Schrader is majoring in Biology and Chemistry and is a member of the Chinese Flagship at Western Kentucky University. A native of Bowling Green, Kentucky, she is currently teaching English in rural Korea through the TaLK program, which selects and funds native English speakers from several countries to spend six months to a year teaching in after-school programs for elementary school students. Sarah is also a 2011 recipient of the Barry Goldwater Scholarship for her research with Dr. Rodney King of the Biology Department. She plans to earn both MD and PhD degrees and conduct research in the field of genetics.