Mesothelioma at 36
The words, "You have cancer" flood your being with intense fear. The first time I heard that dreadful phrase was during a point in my life when everything seemed perfect. I'd just given birth to a healthy and beautiful baby girl a few months before, and here I was, being told that I've got a deadly illness. I was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma, a form of cancer that comes from exposure to asbestos.
My first thought was, "Isn't asbestos illegal?" That's also what people usually ask me when I tell them. The other thing I'm asked is where I had been exposed. Unfortunately, the first question is answered with a resounding, "No." Asbestos is not illegal or banned. To answer the second question, I tell them I was exposed on a secondary basis. My dad worked around asbestos. He did a lot of work on drywall, mudding, sanding and taping it. The resulting dust got on his clothing and in his vehicle, which he inevitably brought home with him. We'd considered the white dust to be innocuous, but in reality, it was heavily laden with asbestos particles.
I was diagnosed at the relatively young age of 36, and according to the Mayo Clinic, at the time, there was only one other case of it in such a young person. The majority of mesothelioma cases consisted of older men who did skilled labor. HVAC, plumbers, electricians, mechanics and military personnel working on ships were all frequently exposed to asbestos due to the nature of their jobs. Later on, alarming numbers of women began developing the disease. These were mostly housewives who were exposed to asbestos from doing their husband's laundry and cleaning up the contaminated dust. Shaking out laundry, sweeping and vacuuming would send a plume of carcinogens into the air where they could easily be inhaled. Many women who got sick also did clerical work in schools that were heavily contaminated.
These days, however, a new round of mesothelioma victims is emerging. When I was diagnosed, I was at the forefront of what would become a frightening new trend. Increasing numbers of young people are coming down with this aggressive disease, even children. Kids who attended school in buildings with decaying asbestos tile and played in contaminated insulation in home attics. Kids, who excitedly jumped into their father's loving arms when he'd come home from a hard day of work, then don his asbestos-covered jacket to protect their clothes while feeding the animals. Even kids who spent quality time with their dads after the workday was over. Sadly, the more I immerse myself in the mesothelioma world, the more I'm coming across young victims. These are people in their 20s and 30s who are just getting started in life. They're men and women who are beginning relationships, marriages, jobs and families, only to feel like it's all being ripped away from them. Soon enough, the only thing they can focus on is fighting for their lives.
The upside to all of this is that medical advances are improving the ability to treat mesothelioma. Greater numbers of victims are beating the illness. Being told you've got cancer is an earth-shattering revelation, but I, and many others with mesothelioma, continue to retain hope. We unite under a common cause to share experiences, offer each other support and find a shoulder to cry on when things aren't going well. We also celebrate the victories when they occur. Some may ask why I share my story. My answer is to improve awareness. Without that, there will be no change. If telling my story helps someone who was just diagnosed, then I've done the right thing.