By Fernando Salazar Miralles
Before I met Frank, my knowledge of mesothelioma was restricted to the half-minute ad spots between old Jeopardy reruns that all seemed to be bought by hordes of law firms with tough-sounding names. Frank and I always watched Jeopardy together in his assisted living community and he always knew the answers to the most obscure trivia, a glint in his eye when he knew the Final Jeopardy answer I didn’t. Mesothelioma was to me, before the diagnosis, just another long word; another disease that seemed so foreign and ethereal. After the diagnosis, it was the scariest word in my vocabulary.
Frank had been complaining of tightness and difficulty breathing for weeks, but I figured it was just the cold snap we were having. Frank’s children were grown and lived across the country, so I took him to the hospital and we watched Trebek shake the hands of the winning contestant on the silent monitor as we waited for his doctor to give him his examination. Later that night, Frank called me to tell me the doctor had ordered an x-ray. I was surprised but Frank, with his characteristic Navy gruffness, said he wasn’t worried and asked if I’d give him a ride.
I was in class when I got the call. Frank would never call me during class saying, “You need to be in class in case you get a clue you can use in Jeopardy”, laughing with his eyes. I instantly knew something was the matter. He sounded so distant, so small. He said the doctor had seen something in his lungs, that they’d scheduled a biopsy for later that week, and if I would mind giving him a ride. The next few days were a blur. I thought the not knowing was the worst part, I know that it killed him to be so out of the loop. Honestly, it was not.
When Frank spoke the words, “pleural mesothelioma” I was relieved. Finally, we had an answer and could begin to tackle the disease. That night I did what any good Jeopardy contestant would do, I looked up as much as I could on mesothelioma on the internet. I will never forget the way I felt that night as I read; the deeper I investigated, the deeper the pit in my stomach grew. I wanted to run, I wanted to get away somehow, it was the first time I encountered despair.
Mesothelioma is a paradox. It is an extremely rare cancer caused by an extremely common material, asbestos, naturally occurring fibrous minerals found in certain types of rock formations. Asbestos has been used by humanity for decades because it is fire resistant and impervious to the elements; the ancient Egyptians even used it to wrap their mummies. It was this same material that was in my best friends’ lungs, suffocating him as it threatened to sarcophagize him. I remember looking up the asbestos molecules and seeing what looked like a cluster of tiny crystals, beautiful and deadly barbs that I knew were responsible for Frank’s condition. My mental anguish intensified as I saw that online there were mostly only support groups for mesothelioma and not a lot of treatments.
The median 5-year survival rate of people with mesothelioma is 5% according to the NIH SEER program. I couldn’t grasp this then, and I still can’t grasp it now. How do you measure 5% of a life? If you took 5% of all the laughs he shared, 5% of all the old Navy stories he had, 5% of every Jeopardy question he answered it’s still not enough to convey the magnitude of his being. I got very sad thinking about my friend’s fate.
Then, I got angry. Why him? Where did it come from? How was he exposed?
Asbestos in the United States has a long and troubling history. Since the industrial revolution and the advent of mechanized mining of asbestos, asbestos has been used in many commercial applications like insulation for pipes, wiring, and buildings. When the United States started taking a position as a world power, it increased its dependence on this deadly material. Hundreds of tons were used to insulate ships, war planes, and command centers throughout our history of conflicts from WWI to Vietnam. Asbestos activity is not limited to our activities abroad, it has been used in roofing, housing insulation, maybe even the very ceiling tiles over your head right now. Asbestos is everywhere and it is deadly. As for Frank, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’ll never know where he was exposed. He was in Vietnam, but he also came home to work in construction, both very high risk occupational areas as far as asbestos exposure is concerned.
Frank was diagnosed with stage IV pleural mesothelioma and given only a year to live. He didn’t make it, but he fought hard. I remember when I asked him what he was going to do about it he told me he was going to play it like Final Jeopardy, “Wager big, and hope to God I know the answer.” He did wager big. He took on very heavy chemotherapy to try to kill the cancer. Towards the end of his life, through exhausting treatments, crippling nausea, and incredible wasting we would share his jell-o cups and sit in his room watching Jeopardy. As I looked over at him, too tired to get out of bed or even eat, I could still see that incredible mind at work and see that same glint in his eye as he answered Final Jeopardy. This is how I choose to remember him.
You can also read this story here: http://www.mesotheliomahelp.org/scholarship-contest/frank/
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