Advocate of the Month – September 2014 logo

The Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance would like to thank Hana Haatainen-Caye for contributing as our September Advocate of the Month. Hana is a writer, speaker, and voice-over talent who spreads her passion for green living on her blog Green Grandma. Today, she shares her story of how asbestos and mesothelioma have played a part in her life. Read and share her story below:

I grew up less than two blocks away from an asbestos plant in Manheim, PA. I don’t know what the actual name of the company was in my early years, we just referred to it as “The Asbestos.” My mom worked in the office there, which was convenient for her as she could simply walk down the street, cross the little red bridge, and be at work. A creek ran between the asbestos plant and a large field where, as children, we often played or rode horses.

For the first 18 years of my life, I was steeped in the vapors of The Asbestos.

Various people I knew, including relatives, ended up with asbestosis, a lung disease caused by breathing in asbestos fibers. By the time I was in high school, there was talk of people suing The Asbestos because of asbestosis and another type of cancer I never paid much attention to. Of course, back in the 70s, those suing were considered outcasts of sort. After all, the plant provided quite a bit of work for the people in this small town and suing just wasn’t an acceptable option.

I moved away from Manheim in the mid 70s and never gave another thought to asbestos. It hadn’t affected me directly, so I didn’t pay much attention to it. Years later, I met Lorraine, a mesothelioma victim. As an elder in our church, my husband would visit shut ins and people in the hospital, often delivering communion to them. One Easter Sunday, I accompanied him. That’s when I first saw Lorraine. She smiled broadly as we entered her hospital room, despite the fact that she’d just had a lung removed. She told me what was wrong with her – mesothelioma – a word I was unfamiliar with. Many years earlier, she was exposed to asbestos where she worked and was paying the ultimate price.

Lorraine Jamrom and I became fast friends, but our time together was way too short. The disease won and, at the age of 52, she was gone.

Suddenly, mesothelioma was no longer unfamiliar. It was a pain in my heart. It was an enemy.

Then there was my friend, Jan, who let me know her brother, Darryl, was fighting the disease. At the age of 46, Darryl Kunkel lost his battle, leaving behind a wife and two children. It wasn’t fair. Mesothelioma wasn’t fair.

Not knowing what mesothelioma is might be more common that we realize. I polled my Facebook friends and here is what I discovered:

  • Most people seem to know about mesothelioma only because they’ve seen the attorney commercials regarding lawsuits
  • Several of my friends lost loved ones to mesothelioma and I didn’t know about it
  • Some people simply don’t understand the disease at all
  • People in the construction or theater industries have lost colleagues — I can’t help wondering how concerned they must be
  • A handful of friends never heard of the disease

One of Boston’s investigative reporters, Hank Phillippi Ryan, told me she’s covered stories about it – “from inhaling asbestos, shipyard workers, mattress workers.” Simply put, there was a time when exposure was commonplace. Did everyone exposed to asbestos fibers develop asbestosis or mesothelioma? Of course not, no more than everyone who loads up on carbs on a daily basis develops diabetes. I guess it’s kind of a crap shoot. But for those who do, the results are devastating.

When I was 27, I developed asthma. Was it because of my childhood exposure to asbestos? I don’t know. Later in my 50s, something suspicious was spotted on my lung during an x-ray. Suddenly, I was frightened. Is the asbestos plant coming back to haunt me? As it turned out, everything was fine, but that didn’t erase the week or so of concern. The reality is The Asbestos could come back to haunt me. Pure and simple. And that’s the stuff nightmares are made of.

The Asbestos, which was actually called Raybestos-Manhattan, Inc., closed many years ago. When it was open, it was both a gift and a curse for the small town of Manheim. While it provided jobs for much of the population, it also robbed many families of loved ones due to exposure to asbestos. People were widowed too young. Children were orphaned. Those suffering from asbestosis sacrificed their quality of life as they struggled to breathe each day. Was it worth it to have a thriving plant in the community? I guess you’d have to ask those left behind.