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My Time with Mesothelioma Patients and Their Families: A Personal Reflection

Last week, I had the honor of attending the International Symposium on Malignant Mesothelioma in Bethesda, Maryland. I met some incredible and courageous people whose lives, and their family’s lives, have been touched by the horrendous disease, mesothelioma.

The Real Faces of Mesothelioma

Many of the mesothelioma patients I met or heard about were proud men who had spent their lives working hard. The essence of blue collar, one person at the conference told me that her father would never admit that he was sick and that it used to take an “act of God” to get him to the doctor. As a result, that lingering cough was ignored for too long. When he was finally diagnosed with mesothelioma, it was too late.

However, what surprised me most is that it isn’t just blue-collar workers who are affected directly. It’s their children too. Imagine working hard, day-in and day-out, and not knowing that you were bringing home deadly asbestos fibers on your clothes and in your hair. These asbestos fibers got lodged in your child’s lungs, causing them to develop mesothelioma decades later.

One woman I spoke to said it broke her father’s heart to know that his job, his quest for the American dream, caused his daughter to get cancer.

I was surprised by the number of asbestos victims affected by secondhand exposure, who were relatively young (mid-30s). Cancer at any age is heart breaking, but mesothelioma is so aggressive and painful that it is awful to see it affect younger generations.

One man said that he is, and I quote, “going to kick cancer’s ass and is taking names.” He lost a lung, but his zest for life is still there. He is still fighting. Mesothelioma may have taken his lung, but he refuses to let it take anything else.

Meeting the faces of mesothelioma, the people we write about every day, touched me in a way I don’t think I can ever put into words. For me, it is no longer generic “men and women affected” by mesothelioma; it is Bob, Maureen, Diane, and their families.

Stories of Hope

I spoke to one survivor who said he personally knew of 25-30 people who had succumbed to the disease within the last year. However, for those that died, there is hope.

One couple who have been attending the conference for the past 5 years told me about a remarkable trend. When they first came to the conference 5 years ago, it was unheard of that any mesothelioma patient could survive as long as 3 years. That was a medical marvel. Nowadays, it isn’t uncommon to hear survival for 5 years, 7 years, 9 years, and even 13 years. Progress has been made. There’s hope.

Coming to Understand a Truly Preventable Cancer

In the time I’ve spent writing for Mesothelioma Help Now, I’ve become an expert at regurgitating the facts about mesothelioma.

  • “Mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer…”
  • “Approximately 1/3 of all mesothelioma cases involve Navy or shipyard exposures.”
  • “Many people die each year from mesothelioma.”

But, until the International Symposium on Malignant Mesothelioma, I didn’t really let those facts sink in.

Asbestos has changed these people’s lives. It caused them to develop cancer and undergo countless surgeries. They lost lungs, sections of their stomachs, and other body parts. And for some, they lost their beloved family members or friends.

“What makes mesothelioma so hard is that it can be avoided,” explained a conference participant. “Asbestos-containing products can and should be banned. Her father didn’t have to die. The manufacturers didn’t care. They didn’t see him turn grey. They didn’t see his surgeries. They didn’t see a once strong man weaken. But her family did.”

These people are a tight-knit community. They care for each other. They support each other. They continue to fight for each other when others can no longer can.

Stephanie St. Martin is a sponsored contributor to Mesothelioma Help Now.