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What is Mesothelioma and Why Is It Always On TV?

I got this letter in my mailbox.  I don’t know why this kid chose me, but I guess I will answer.

Dear Damien.  I see so many commercials about mesothelioma.  What is it?   (Amanda L**** age 9, Halifax, Nova Scotia.)

Hi, Amanda.

Before the disease came to national prominence because of all the litigation (legal stuff) going on to compensate victims and their families, Mesothelioma was a disease that nobody ever heard of — but that was then and this is now.

Mesothelioma is a lethal form of cancer that attacks the thin layer of cells surrounding the lungs, heart, and abdominal cavity. This rare disease has been associated with asbestos exposure. Asbestos is some kind of stuff that they used to use to protect things from heat.  Like oven mittens used to be made from asbestos but not anymore.  Over 80 percent of individuals suffering from mesothelioma have worked with asbestos products for extended periods of time. Because the first symptoms appear decades after initial exposure to asbestos, mesothelioma is diagnosed in late stages. There is no known cure for this aggressive disease.

Almost certainly the best known victim of mesothelioma, Steve McQueen was the ultra-cool actor of the 1960s and 1970s.   He played in movies like The Magnificent Seven, Wanted: Dead or Alive, The Great Escape, The Thomas Crown Affair, Bullit, and Papillon. He also starred in the  disaster film of the 1970s, The Towering Inferno.

Steve McQueen’s great passion was for motorcycles and race car driving. He reportedly remarked, “Racing is life. Anything before or after is just waiting.”  He may have been exposed to asbestos in car racing because he used to like to work on cars and in the old days, the brakes on a car often had to replaced because they were made out of asbestos and they wore out a lot faster than the stuff they use on brakes today.

Steve McQueen was likely exposed to asbestos during his service in the Marines between 1947 and 1950—the work that funded his acting studies and set him on the course to become the celebrity he was. He also was likely exposed to asbestos in the flame-retardant suits that he wore to race cars. Although he was a smoker, like many of his contemporaries, there has been no link shown between smoking and mesothelioma. Steve McQueen was diagnosed with mesothelioma in late 1979. His doctors told him that there was no cure and no treatment to offer him, so he pursued alternative treatments in Mexico. He died of a heart attack shortly after surgery attempting to remove the cancer.

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