Alternative Medicine

A very true story that describes my alternative medicine upbringing: a family friend traveling through the Livingston pass, an area outside of Bozeman Montana well known for the area’s “hurricane force” winds (exceeding 74.4 miles per hour), stepped out of his car at an unfortunate moment on an exceptionally windy day. He was hit in the head by a metal sign, broken free of its wooden post and rushed to the hospital for head trauma. Once there, he denied immediate treatment from the emergency room physician, wanting a second opinion from a “professional”. The physician called this “professional” and was shocked to find the advice given was from a rural Montanan farmer practicing alternative medicine from in front of his computer, in his home office: this farmer was my father.

For many people, living an alternative medicine lifestyle is not a choice they made, but simply due to their upbringing; for others, the choice to use fully alternative or even complementary therapies, a combination of alternative and traditional medicine, is a decision of life or death. The latter was the case for James “Rhio” O’Connor, diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma, the most common malignant mesothelioma cancer. It is a cancer that affects the inner membrane of cells lining the lungs and chest wall and can occur after exposure to asbestos, as it did with O’Connor. Pleural mesothelioma is a rare cancer that often takes decades to display symptoms, but it is typically fatal within one year of diagnosis.

There is no widely accepted “cure” for this type of cancer, but medical professionals frequently suggest treatment options such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery to manage the disease; these treatments, often painful and expensive, leading to a decreased quality of life, were not viable options for O’Connor. Seemingly left with no other options, the doctor recommended O’Connor take a nice vacation and prepare for the end while in the comfortable care of Hospice.

Although Hospice is a suitable option for many terminally ill patients, allowing them to live the remainder of their lives in comfort, this was also not an option for O’Connor. Guided by professional clinicians and his determination to survive, he turned to alternative treatments and retained a positive and optimistic mind, allowing him to live for 7 ½ more years until he passed away on July 11, 2009. If it had not been for his personal choice, O’Connor likely would not have lived past one year.

There are countless forms of alternative therapies, some as simple as balanced diet or supplement regiments. Traditionally, a few alternative therapies such as acupuncture, homeopathy, and osteopathic manipulative therapy (OMT) have been used to alleviate the affects of certain ailments. Although these are still used today, many new alternative practices have been designed, targeting the body and mind through therapies such as yoga, massage, and hypnosis. None of these techniques are approved by the FDA as clinical replacements, since the results of such treatments are purely anecdotal. Regardless, medical facilities are beginning to recommend the use of some alternative therapies in conjunction with traditional and pharmaceutical means allowing for yet another form of treatment: complementary medicine, a combination of both alternative and traditional medicine to fit the patient’s lifestyle.

I strongly believe this is the direction cancer therapy should take: personalized therapies combining alternative means with the necessary traditional medications to allow for maximum recovery, all directed by the patient with guidance from professionals, but most importantly, guidance from their personal beliefs. O’Connor believed in “something greater than himself”, his firm beliefs as well as his positive mindset allowed O’Connor to make it through his difficult recovery.

Although alternative therapies are not a guaranteed treatment to an ailment, they represent something else: a personal choice. In the dark serious time after receiving a negative prognosis, patients may feel like they have no control. Sometimes the answer to regaining hope and the positive mindset necessary for recovery is as simple as making a personal decision regarding the direction of treatment, whether traditional, complementary, or alternative. Obviously there are many treatment paths that can be taken, but overall, a positive and optimistic mindset is most necessary for recovery. People should always be allowed to make their own choice regarding personal health as this is truly the only way to remain optimistic about your outcomes.

Many cancer survivors, like James O’Connor, are sharing their stories of the pain, fighting, and survival with the hope of giving inspiration to those with similar diseases. Although each story follows a different path through treatment, some traditional, some alternative, one aspect stays the same: each survivor was given a choice and control of their own life, something that belongs to every human being.  

For more information about mesothelioma, its diagnosis, treatment, or survivors such as James O’Connor, visit


Rachel Juel

College of Letters and Science