Advocate of the Month – January 2014 logo

The Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance would like to thank Kathleen Hoffman for sharing her personal experience with the dangers of asbestos exposure as January’s Advocate of the Month. Kathleen’s husband was a firefighter for years and now deals with the repercussions of exposure. Please read Kathleen’s story and help her spread awareness for mesothelioma victims!

I am so honored to have been chosen Advocate of the Month by this amazing organization. The Alliance has done so much to create awareness for mesothelioma cancer, a very deadly, totally preventable, and not widely known type of cancer. I currently write a blog about ovarian cancer, something I’ve been fighting for over five years. I try to create awareness of its symptoms, its treatments, the amazing breakthroughs that have been made, as well as survival tips and tricks that I have learned through 2 surgeries, 4 chemotherapy drugs, a myriad of side effects (I’m an allergic nightmare!). The Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance has done this and so much more through its website and online community.

There are so many types of cancer and we all know someone who is fighting this cowardly disease or someone who fought the valiant fight. But I’m not sure if we all know that mesothelioma is a very specific type of cancer – a completely preventable type — caused only by asbestos exposure. Knowing more about the disease and its risk factors truly does make a difference. By raising more awareness and rallying support, hopefully one day we can get asbestos banned once and for all.

Fighting Fires and Asbestos

I have a very personal connection to mesothelioma – or at least the cause of it. My husband was a fireman for 20 years in New York City. He worked 24-hour tours in firehouses with asbestos ceilings. Asbestos was used to soundproof the dormitories and other areas of the building. 15 or 20 years after it’s put up, asbestos begins to disintegrate and turns into a powder that floats in the air.

He spent most of his 20 years running into burning tenement buildings built in the era when entire heating systems and boiler rooms were coated in asbestos. Asbestos was used to insulate and keep the heat in the boilers and the pipes, but, at very high temperatures, as in a fire, it would break down and circulate in the air.

In the 1970s the city he worked for made a very political statement by cleaning all the asbestos out of the school buildings. It was a very worthwhile beginning, however the firemen in the city were sleeping and eating and living in firehouses with asbestos flaking off the ceilings in the dormitories.

My husband was an officer with a degree in Fire Science and a Certification in the Occupational Safety Hazard Administration (OSHA). He brought the danger of asbestos to the attention of the City’s administration. Their answer was to paint the ceilings of the affected firehouses. This caused an even greater danger. The paint began to crack and fall, pulling down even more asbestos in the process. When he continued to fight for the firefighters and demand that the asbestos be removed, he was threatened with transfer to a house without asbestos – but with the highest number of fire calls in the City.

Only recently have I become aware of secondhand exposure to asbestos. The deadly fibers can be transported from one location to another on clothing, shoes, even your body. When I was doing my husband’s laundry, I never dreamed I was exposing myself to a deadly cause of cancer.

Thank God my husband does not have mesothelioma; however, he does have banding on his lungs and definite damage from years of asbestos exposure. He is monitored constantly for any signs of cancer. Current laws do provide for job-related cancers and the firefighter is entitled to appropriate compensation. The problem stems from the statute of limitations on this law – sixty months. Mesothelioma usually manifests long after the sixty-month statute has expired. It’s more like a ten to thirty year latency period. Various legislators across the country have introduced bills that would extend this statute of limitations for firefighter cancers. Some have been passed and more are still in discussion stages.

Awareness and Advocacy Organizations

Despite the fact that asbestos exposure is still the number one cause of occupational cancer in the US, the manufacture, importation, processing and distribution in commerce of hundreds of products, are still not banned. The list of EPA Asbestos-Related laws and regulations gets longer by the year. Unfortunately, the use of asbestos in products like vinyl floor tile, cement shingles, automatic transmission components, disk brake pads, pipeline wrap, roof coatings, even clothing, is still not banned – and the list goes on and on.

Roughly 30 million pounds are still used each year. It can still be found in many homes, schools, and commercial or industrial buildings. It was once used in more than 3,000 consumer products including household items such as toasters and hair dryers – some of which may still be in use. Asbestos fibers are invisible to the naked eye and NO AMOUNT of exposure is safe. Navy veterans are at the greatest risk to develop mesothelioma as asbestos was widely used in naval ships and shipyards. But, as with firefighters, many occupations are also at risk.

My goal is not to frighten anyone, but just to make you aware and to ask for your help, if you are able. There are many organizations that are working tirelessly to eradicate this disease.

  • The Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation, more commonly referred to as MARF, for example, is a non-profit national organization dedicated to lobbying for and funding mesothelioma research initiatives. In addition to funding initiatives and research projects, MARF also seeks to connect patients with cancer specialists and mesothelioma programs at the nation’s leading cancer centers. Another tier of MARF’s mission is advocacy for mesothelioma patients in the form of federal and state-level lobbying efforts.
  • The International Mesothelioma Program is a joint initiative of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard University School of Medicine. Led by the esteemed Dr. David Sugarbaker, the IMP is at the forefront of all leading mesothelioma treatment research and practice. Combining a holistic treatment and support program, the IMP has made tremendous strides in surgical treatment for early-stage mesothelioma diagnosis as well as aggressive chemotherapy treatments for later-stage disease.

The National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society have always been among the leaders in coordinating research projects. They and many other organizations are wholly committed to research and the defeat of cancer once and for all. The MCA has put together a fantastic website with tons of information about the mesothelioma. You can learn about asbestos, asbestos-related diseases, and occupations that are affected – and, for my firefighters out there, there are resources about occupations commonly affected. Please check it out, I want you all to be safe!