by Jade Golden
All of my life, my mother had always been exceptionally healthy – almost unusually so. She was in great shape, she ate well, and she was busy, much too busy to even have the sniffles. However, one evening while we were having dinner, my mom casually mentioned that she had been feeling winded while climbing up and down the stairs. She attributed her shortness of breath to a nagging “chest cold” she had been suffering from for the past month. It was an odd thing for her to complain about anything, so I suggested she see a doctor.
At first, her health providers thought she had pneumonia. Her symptoms were vague and easily attributable to common and mostly benign respiratory conditions. She didn’t have a remarkable past medical history or occupational history that would cause suspicion or draw any red flags. In spite of this, further workup and a lung biopsy revealed the insidious cause of her breathing difficulty.
Stage IV mesothelioma. I vividly remember my brother coming into my room to tell me her diagnosis. My mom’s physician had just called about the biopsy results. At the time, I didn’t know what mesothelioma was. Confused and worried, I searched online for any information I could find. The one thing that stood out amongst the blur of panic was “poor prognosis” and disease mortality charts indicating my mom would have only a few months to live.
Despite a prognosis that would have crushed those with less of a will to survive, my mom charged forth with a tenacity and positivity that astounded me. For the next four years, she fought hard, going through round after round of life zapping chemotherapy as well as invasive surgeries. Although she did enjoy some happy years of remission, her cancer eventually returned and progressed rapidly. During this time, we spent endless hours in hospitals, consulting professionals, searching for solutions to a problem that we could not fix.
Words cannot accurately describe the helplessness I felt in watching my mom suffer. How could someone who had been so independent, vivacious, and vibrant all her life suddenly become this frail shell of the person she once was? She had lost the ability to complete even the simplest of tasks and was unable to walk unassisted. Her abdomen was like a giant watermelon, hard and swollen from ascites. Her legs were edematous and trunk like. Even her once soft, flawless olive skin was ashen, tented and fit loosely on her bones. I did what I could to make her feel her best – I dressed her, bathed her, put her makeup on, prepared her meals. However, her health continued to decline. On a warm afternoon in late June, my mom passed away.
My mom’s battle with mesothelioma truly gave me an appreciation for the sanctity of human life and encouraged me to seek ways where I could help other people in a medical setting. Because of her, I chose to go to graduate school to become a physician assistant, because I knew I could make a positive impact on the lives of others. I hope to use my education to help patients with cancer and give them the resources they need to head into battle with the positivity and determination to beat this devastating disease. Treating cancer is not just a physical battle. It is a mental and emotional one, too. I don’t want any one of my patients to feel alone or alienated by the challenges they face. I want to ensure that they have strong support system – family, friends, a support group, myself – ready to listen to their fears, share their concerns, and cheer them on.
To this day, we are unsure when or where my mom was exposed to asbestos – this is why raising awareness for mesothelioma and educating the public about the dangers of asbestos is crucial. Asbestos exposure is the primary carcinogen linked to the development of mesothelioma. Asbestos has been used in a wide array of products including insulation, car brakes, paints, adhesives, and ceiling tiles to name a few (“Asbestos”). When asbestos-containing products are damaged, asbestos fibers can be released into the air. If a person inhales these fibers, the fibers can get caught in the lungs causing damage to lung tissue, which potentiates the risk of developing cancers, like mesothelioma (“Asbestos”). Although the most commonly affected organ system is the lungs, asbestos can also become trapped in the abdomen or pericardium, which is the lining around the heart (“Mesothelioma Cancer”). Groups recognized as high risk for asbestos exposure include individuals who have worked in industries such as shipbuilding, textiles, construction, and asbestos mining (“Asbestos”); however, this does not exclude those who have not worked in such fields. Even people who do not work in such industries should be aware of asbestos containing materials at home, school, or work and be mindful to avoid those materials.
Physicians had difficulty diagnosing my mom with mesothelioma because she did not fit the typical demographic of most mesothelioma patients. It can take up to 10-40 years before symptoms of asbestos exposure occur (“Asbestos”), so identification of exposure is often difficult unless the patient has had significant occupational history in one of the previously mentioned industries. The most common presenting symptoms in mesothelioma are shortness of breath and chest wall pain, but patients can also present with fatigue, weight loss, fever, and sweats (“Mesothelioma”). It is important that people presenting with these symptoms seek medical care, especially if they have known asbestos exposure.
To someone who has lost a loved one to mesothelioma, I would say don’t ask the “what ifs”. I have often asked myself, “What if I knew then what I know now about mesothelioma? What if I had told her to see a doctor sooner? What if I could’ve changed what happened?” The “what ifs” do not change what has happened. It took me a long time to realize that. Now, I focus on the happy moments. I think about my mom dancing at my brother’s wedding. I think about her laugh and her smile. Mesothelioma took so much, but it has not taken away all the loving memories I have of my mom that keep her spirit alive.
“Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk.” National Cancer Institute. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.
“Mesothelioma Cancer.” Mesothelioma.com Resources for Patients and Their Families. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.
“Mesothelioma.” Practice Essentials, Background, Etiology. N.p., 08 Jan. 2017. Web. 23 Mar. 2017.