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The cancer community is all too familiar with the notion that cancer does not discriminate in who it affects. Often thought of as a disease for blue collar older men, mesothelioma has proven that it too does not discern between who is affected; the cause always comes back to asbestos exposure.
With approximately 3,000 mesothelioma-related deaths per year in the United States, it’s no surprise that the disease has afflicted a number of noteworthy individuals in recent years. Here’s a selection of high-profile cases.
Stephen Jay Gould (1941–2002)
Paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, a Library of Congress Living Legend before his death, is best known for his theory of punctuated equilibrium, which states that species development is characterized by long static periods and sudden bursts of evolution. He was a frequent guest on talk shows like Charlie Rose, contributed to several Ken Burns documentaries, and even voiced himself on The Simpsons episode “Lisa the Skeptic.” He clashed frequently with Richard Dawkins, and was part of a sometimes bitter fight over interpretations of the theory of evolution. Gould also wrote frequently for Natural History magazine and authored a number of books aimed at the general public.
Gould was a rare peritoneal (abdominal) mesothelioma survivor. He lived for 20 years after his initial diagnosis, succumbing to an unrelated lung cancer in 2002. He wrote an essay after his diagnosis, “The Median is the Message,” detailing his reaction to discovering that the median survival time for mesothelioma patients is 8 months.
Paul Rudolph (1918–1997)
The former dean of the Yale School of Architecture was known for his buildings’ geometric, modernist exteriors and complicated floor plans. Some of his most famous designs include the Art and Architecture Building at Yale, later named Rudolph Hall; a series of innovative houses he designed and built in Sarasota, Florida; and the Lippo Centre in Hong Kong, sometimes called “The Koala Tree” for the appearance of the sections of extruding windows that Rudolph incorporated into the design.
Rudolph died in 1997 of peritoneal mesothelioma. He had served for 3 years in the Navy in the 1940s.
Malcolm McLaren (1946–2010)
British musician, artist, impresario and clothes designer Malcolm McLaren helped jumpstart the punk movement, which changed the face of popular music. He masterminded the Sex Pistols (its members all shopped or worked at his London clothing boutique, SEX), defining the group’s controversial style and, in the process, the sound and aesthetic of an entire movement. He arranged the Pistols’ infamous boat performance of “God Save the Queen” during Queen Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee. The concert resulted in his own arrest and helped catalyze the moral panic that drove the band’s—and genre’s—popularity.
McLaren was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma in 2009 and died a year later. He was likely exposed to asbestos when tearing open the ceiling of SEX in order to make the shop appear as though a bomb had hit it.
Ed Lauter (1938–2013)
Veteran character actor and comedian Ed Lauter appeared in over 200 films and TV episodes throughout his 45-year career. He’s familiar for his roles in films such as The Longest Yard, Death Wish 3, Trouble With the Curve, The Artist and Family Plot, Alfred Hitchcock’s final movie. Hitchcock was reportedly so impressed with Lauter that he offered him a major role in what was to be the director’s next film, The Short Night, but Hitchcock died before the movie went into production.
Lauter died in October 2013, just 5 months after his diagnosis with mesothelioma. He worked almost up until his death, and has roles in several forthcoming movies. A scholarship for young actors has been set up in his name.
Warren Zevon (1947–2003)
The mordant bandleader is best known for hit songs like “Werewolves of London” and for his frequent appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman, where he sometimes filled in as bandleader. He succumbed to peritoneal mesothelioma in 2003. Zevon was public about his battle with the disease, refusing treatment so that he could record his final album, The Wind.
His final public performance was as the sole guest and musical artist on an episode of The Late Show, where he performed and spoke at length about his experience with cancer. During the show, he first offered his famous advice to “enjoy every sandwich.”
Sean Sasser (1968-2013)
Best known for his appearance on MTV’s 1994 The Real World: San Francisco, where he exchanged commitment vows with cast member Pedro Zamora, Sasser was an AIDS activist and, later in his life, an accomplished pastry chef. His relationship with Zamora, who died of progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML) soon after appearing on the show, was a focal point of the Real World season. The two also appeared in castmate Judd Winick’s Pedro and Me, an Eisner-award nominated graphic novel about Zamora. Their commitment vows were the first such ceremony ever shown of a gay couple on television, and their relationship was a watershed moment in the portrayal of gay and HIV-positive individuals on television.
After his time on The Real World, Sasser continued his AIDS activism, speaking at the first White House AIDS conference in 1995 and appointed by President Clinton to the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. At the time of his death from mesothelioma, he was working as a pastry chef in Washington, D.C.
Paul Gleason (1939–2006)
With a career that spanned 4 decades, Paul Gleason is best known for his role as Richard Vernon, the assistant principal who assigns the principal characters detention in The Breakfast Club. He had memorable roles in Die Hard, Trading Places and All My Children and appeared in dozens of movies and TV shows. Gleason was also an accomplished athlete, playing football at Florida State University and enjoying a brief professional baseball career with the Cleveland Indians, though he never appeared in the majors. He also frequently participated in celebrity golf tournaments.
Gleason died of pleural mesothelioma in 2006. He likely was exposed to asbestos as a teenager, when he spent time working for his father at construction sites.
Steve McQueen (1930–1980)
Actor Steve McQueen was the star of many classic films, like The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven, The Thomas Crowne Affair and Bullitt. He was part of a number of iconic movie moments, including the famous motorcycle jump in The Great Escape (though McQueen didn’t perform the actual stunt, he did much of the motorcycle riding in the film). The car chase in Bullitt, for which McQueen drove in many of the shots, is accounted one of the best chases ever put on film.
An avid driver, McQueen may have been exposed to asbestos through the protective suit he wore while racing. He also spent time as a sailor and in the Marines. He died of a heart attack after undergoing lung surgery in Mexico, where he had traveled in search of treatment for the mesothelioma that doctors in the US had deemed inoperable. His search for a cure, which involved bizarre treatments and shady unlicensed doctors, was the subject of tabloid scrutiny.
Merlin Olsen (1940–2010)
Fourteen-time Pro Bowler Merlin Olsen enjoyed a 15-year career with the Los Angeles Rams in the NFL, where he was part of the Fearsome Foursome alongside Rosey Grier, one of the greatest defensive lines in NFL history. He won the league’s Rookie of the Year award on arrival in 1962 and was MVP in 1974. Olsen was known for his physical prowess and his analytical approach to the game. After his football career ended in 1976, he went on to become a successful broadcaster, teaming with Dick Enberg for commentary on AFC games. He also acted in the TV shows Little House on the Prairie and Father Murphy.
Olsen was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2009, which he believed he contracted from asbestos exposure while working construction when he was younger. He filed suit against a number of asbestos companies, which his family settled after his death.