Arianna Opper '13 Biology, Pre-Med (Canisius/LECOM Early Acceptance Program)

Arianna Opper '13

Read Arianna’s "James Rhio O'Connor Scholarship Essay" - 
Healing Beyond Conventional Medicine

While at Canisius, Arianna has participated in several music ensembles, served as the Chair for the American Cancer Society Relay for Life event, and volunteered at area medical facilities. She is also active in her church.

Arianna will attend Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine for medical school where she will participate in their Primary Care Scholars Pathway.

Photo: Arianna and Barbara Opper (April 2011)

Healing Beyond Conventional Medicine

by Arianna Opper
Canisius College Class of 2013

Mr. James Rhio O’Connor is a true inspiration not only to those battling cancer but also to those of us who believe that there is value in alternative medicine. At age 61, Mr. O’Connor was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the thin lining (mesothelium) of the body’s internal organs. Exposure to airborne asbestos particles is understood to be the primary cause of this devastating cancer. The life expectancy after a pleural mesothelioma diagnosis is a mere 6-8 months and standard treatment for mesothelioma is incredibly limited and generally not curative.

Mr. O’Connor’s prognosis was poor. He was given only a year to live and advised by his physician to take his wife on a cruise before beginning hospice care. Considering the location of his tumor relative to his spine, surgery was not an option and chemotherapy was not likely to significantly lengthen his life. Resilient and determined to outlive his prognosis, Mr. O’Connor turned instead to integrative medicine, the educated marriage of conventional and alternative medicine. Integrative medicine incorporates scientifically driven, researched and clinically relevant alternative medical techniques with conventional medicine. Alternative medicine and consequently integrative medicine (by association) is quite controversial, especially in the context of cancer treatment. Consequently, cancer patients are not offered integrative medical therapies. The responsibility to seek out alternative therapy lies in the hands of the patient.

Mr. O’Connor worked closely with clinicians who were open to and well-versed in integrative medicine. Following extensive research, he innovatively created his own unique regimen centered on a whole foods (mostly vegetarian) diet, over 100 supplements per day, and the practice of mind-body medicine. His journey and holistic yet scientifically driven approach to healing is chronicled in his book They Said Months, I Chose Years!. Mr. O’Connor passed away on July 11th, 2009 at the age of 69, outliving his prognosis by nearly seven years.

Mr. O’Connor’s story is incredibly close to my heart for two reasons: one being his advocacy of the value integrative medicine (I may already have made this clear). I’m also so moved by his story because of its resonance with my own mother’s inspiring battle with malignant melanoma.

My mother’s cancer was misdiagnosed four times, which as one could imagine, exacerbated the already daunting process of therapy and recovery. With each new (and failed) form of conventional therapy we tried, we became less and less convinced that the conventional therapies and accompanying side effects: the extreme fatigue, hair loss, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, constipation (the list goes on) were worth it. Each time we received a different diagnosis, it was painstakingly clear that the particular chemotherapy that had just robbed her of energy and quality of life turned out to be an inappropriate form of chemo for the cancer she “actually did” have.

 About a year after her initial diagnosis, the primary tumor beneath her right arm had essentially cut off blood and lymphatic circulation to her right limb. Amputation of her entire right arm and shoulder was at that point our only option.

My mother’s prognosis was never good.  She was given only months to live, though we didn’t advertise it at the time simply because we weren’t about to surrender. Malignant melanoma is an aggressive cancer, and like mesothelioma, has one of the highest mortality rates among cancers.

Like Mr. O’Connor, my mother was undeterred. Her will to live was much stronger than her cancer. Though I knew that the mind can be incredibly powerful and integral to the healing process, I was also aware of the fact that surviving cancer is not a simple “mind over matter” scenario. My father relentlessly researched clinical trials for metastatic melanoma and was prepared at each doctor’s visit with a list of trials for which my mother might have been eligible. It was at this point that I decided to put my own interest in integrative medicine to use and began by simply urging my mother to adopt a healthier way of living. Together, we participated in aerobics exercise and I began to share with her the yoga and tai chi that I’d learned on my own. These helped her to clear her mind, ease anxiety, strengthen her body, re-evoke confidence, and work on the balance issues she faced after having lost a limb.

I’d always been mindful of nutrition, but it was also at this point that we adopted a whole foods, anti-inflammatory diet based primarily on Mediterranean and Eastern cuisine, with a couple of revisions for my mother in an attempt to prevent cancer cell migration. We began to frequent health-food stores and adopted a regimen of natural supplements, a couple of which were exceptionally promising (we did research these and we did consult a physician). Cancer-targeted alternative and integrative medical books line our bookshelves at home; I used my subscriptions to online databases through the Canisius College library to research clinical studies and alternative natural cancer treatments. Many of her symptoms were alleviated and tumor growth seemed to halt for a few months.  In the meantime, thanks to my father’s persistence, my mother was able to participate in a BRAF gene-targeted clinical trial in Detroit, MI. This therapy, in combination with her lifestyle and diet alterations prolonged her life and gave our family one last healthy summer together, Mom’s favorite season.

My mother, Barbara Ann Opper passed away on January 12th, 2012. She was the strongest, most resilient individual I’ve ever known. She inspired many with her strength and optimism and affectionately adopted her own saying “if a 54-year-old one-armed woman can do it, you can do it!” Everything I’ve learned from her and through the experience of her illness I’ll carry as I enter the medical profession and prepare to take on the responsibility of preventing illness, healing and caring for others.

I do believe that in many cases cancer can be prevented and even treated via a variety of lifestyle changes and alternative, natural means. These therapies which often consist of simple, yet dramatic lifestyle changes, are not the focus of clinical trial to the degree which gene therapy and pharmaceuticals are, namely because pharmaceutical companies cannot capitalize on these natural remedies and lifestyle changes.  This pattern can be seen throughout Western medicine but it is amplified in the context of cancer treatment because of its urgency. As research in epigenetics emerges, we are realizing, not shockingly, that environmental and lifestyle factors contribute to cancer initiation and proliferation. Once cancer is diagnosed, many believe that options are limited to conventional cancer treatment. For Mr. O’Connor, for my mother, and I’m hoping for other brave individuals these options are not enough; they look to integrative medicine.

Were I faced with a dire cancer prognosis in the future, I’d respond in a very similar manner. Having experienced my mother’s battle firsthand truly peaked my interest in integrative medicine and alternative cancer therapy. I continue to research cancer prevention and treatment methods in integrative medicine. I routinely scour journal databases for articles reporting the newest substantiated alternative treatments. It has become my mission to not only broaden my own knowledge of integrative methods of cancer prevention and treatment, but also to see enhanced accessibility of this information regarding lifestyle changes and alternative forms of treatment for others. I’m incredibly eager to begin my osteopathic education next year at the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine in Erie, PA. In essence, osteopathic physicians are trained to assess the patient as a whole rather than a collection of parts and systems that may be damaged or diseased. Osteopathic medicine supplements modern medicine with osteopathic manipulative medicine (OMM) and places more focus on overall wellness, disease prevention, and comprehensive patient care. My intention is to complete a fellowship in integrative medicine and practice family medicine.

It is individuals like Mr. O’Connor that are changing the way we all look at health and healing. Because they are derived from nature, scientifically driven alternative therapies are less likely to damage the body adversely, but they still have the potential to interact with each other and with conventional medications. The new concern that emerges is of course, that many physicians are not well-versed in integrative therapy, as it is not traditionally taught in medical school. Mr. O’Connor’s remarkable story will begin to open many closed-minds regarding integrative medicine, especially in the context of cancer treatment. His legacy is not only reflected in the remarkable seven years he gained, but in all the years gained for cancer patients and patients of physicians who read his story and ultimately in all the lives improved and prolonged as a result of access to alternative treatments of which the emerging field of integrative medicine encompasses. Thank you, Mr. James Rhio O’Connor.