Mesothelioma – the disease that killed a legend

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November 7 2010 marks the 30th anniversary of the legendary film star Steve McQueen’s death from mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma is a deadly form of lung cancer linked to exposure to asbestos. Cruelly, mesothelioma can take many years to develop – sometimes people exposed to asbestos are diagnosed with mesothelioma some 50 or even 60 years after their contact with asbestos.

It’s believed that Steve McQueen was first exposed to asbestos during his time in the US Marine Corps when he worked as a mechanic. However, it’s most likely that his love of motor racing was behind his disease – his racing suits were insulated with fire retardant asbestos and, recklessly, he would soak rags in liquid asbestos and hold these over his mouth whilst racing.

Steve McQueen was diagnosed with mesothelioma in December 1979 and embarked on a series of unconventional treatments to try and beat the disease. However, doctors told him it was fatal and, to try and extend his life, they operated to remove malignant mesothelioma tumours from his lungs and stomach – his right lung was almost entirely cancerous. McQueen in his weakened state died of a heart attack directly after the surgery.

Asbestos was used in many professions for its fire and sound proofing qualities. Common uses of asbestos were for pipe and duct insulation, building insulation, wall and ceiling panels, roofing materials, cements and car brake pads. So it’s little surprise that those most likely to be diagnosed with mesothelioma are former construction workers, mechanics, pipe fitters and ship builders.

As its deadly qualities became apparent, the use of so called blue and brown asbestos was phased out during the 1970s. Even so, it is still present in the fabric of many buildings which means construction workers today are still at risk of exposure to asbestos, for example whilst demolishing or renovating buildings lined with asbestos.

Even more worrying is the growth in the trade of white asbestos which is already banned in 52 countries but heavily in use in India, Russia, Brazil, China and the developing world. It’s said to be cheap, effective and nowhere near as dangerous as the ‘old’ asbestos. Doctors disagree and are predicting a devastating global epidemic of mesothelioma for decades to come.

Mesothelioma is a cruel disease, not least because those who contract it were exposed to asbestos doing an honest day’s work. Whilst medical professionals continue to research new treatments – and there are some hopeful new methods on the horizon – mesothelioma still remains a fatal disease that continues to claim lives.

For Steve McQueen and many, many more ordinary working men and women there was to be no Great Escape. We hope that there will be breakthroughs in the treatment of mesothelioma soon.

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