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Carol Nutter grew up on a farm in Maine with her parents and three brothers. Since they lived in a coastal area, her dad worked in a shipyard in the neighboring town while her mom Marguerite – known as Peggy to her family and friends – maintained the farm. As the siblings grew up, they found their places in their own careers. Carol’s oldest brother, Tim, managed a grocery store and her middle brother, Mark, worked in the shipyard with their dad and in construction as a backhoe operator.
The family didn’t realize the dangers of asbestos until their mom was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 1993. Three years later, Tim was diagnosed. And in 1998, Mark also learned he had mesothelioma.
“We were all shocked and very scared,” Carol recalled to the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance. “It was very upsetting to my family. We joined a children’s grieving group to help us all deal with what was going on.”
Following their untimely deaths from this rare cancer, Carol wants the world to realize the dangers of asbestos and see it banned once and for all.
A Family Exposed
As the children grew up, Carol’s father worked a labor-intensive job at a neighboring shipyard. Shipyard workers face many hazards at work, like heavy machinery and the dangers of falling. Unknowingly to the family, shipyards are also associated with a high risk of asbestos exposure.
Asbestos was widely used on naval vessels. During their construction or repairs, shipyard workers and navy veterans could be exposed to a variety of asbestos-containing materials. Workers were most often exposed to asbestos from the insulation around pipes, pumps, and boilers.
Much of these workers’ jobs entailed repairing or replacing materials on these ships, which would often mean disturbing the asbestos-containing materials in some way. Asbestos is not considered dangerous until it is damaged and its fibers become airborne. Since these workers generally weren’t trained about asbestos, they did not take the proper precautions to avoid exposure to the toxin. Given the tight quarters on the ships, any airborne asbestos could easily become heavily concentrated in the air.
“My father’s friend told me that they did asbestos rip out and never knew anything about how dangerous it was,” Carol explained. “His friend ended up dying of asbestosis.”
When inhaled, the durable asbestos fibers become trapped in the body and can cause a number of serious diseases, like asbestosis and mesothelioma. Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease caused by the fibers scarring the lung tissue. People can often live decades with this disease, though the condition gets worse over time.
Unlike asbestosis, mesothelioma carries a rather grim prognosis. Since it’s a rare cancer that’s often hard to diagnose, the disease often isn’t detected until it has already advanced to a later stage. Patients typically have 12 – 21 months to live.
Carol’s dad worked at the shipyard until he fell ill. Peggy became a certified nursing assistant at a local nursing home to help take care of him. Though her father didn’t develop mesothelioma, the dangers of asbestos still caught up with the family. Secondhand exposure is a huge risk for families of workers in these occupations.
“From what I can tell, they brought it home on their clothing and that is how the family was exposed to it as well,” Carol said. “It is so sad and I know if my father had known the dangers of this horrible stuff, he would have not done the job. He had no idea what he was bringing home to us.”
After exposure, there is typically a 20 – 50 year period before symptoms start to show. In 1993, her mother was the first to be diagnosed with mesothelioma.
“We had no idea what this was and what caused it. I went to the library to educate myself about this terrible stuff,” Carol recalled. “I was very shocked to learn that you don’t need to be working in it to be exposed to it.”
The family learned their mom had a tumor in the lining of her left lung, indicating pleural mesothelioma. As a nurse, Peggy realized the side effects involved with treatment. Mesothelioma is typically treated with some standard methods, like surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Today, there are some more emerging therapies showing promise, but in the early 1990s, this family would not have had as many options.
Peggy decided not to go through with treatment and potential side effects she’d face. She survived five-and-a-half months without treatment and sadly passed away when she was just 69 years old.
In 1996, Carol’s older brother was also diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma. Since Tim was only 49, he decided to seek treatment and try to beat the odds. He found a specialty cancer clinic to treat his mesothelioma in Boston.
Tim underwent surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital to remove his left lung. This surgery is quite intensive and requires extensive testing to ensure the patient’s other lung can support the body’s respiration process. Patients typically face a two-week recovery period.
Sadly, the mesothelioma later returned in the other lung. Tim survived for about a year after his surgery and passed away in 1998.
When Mark was diagnosed at 48 that same year, he sought out the same surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Unfortunately, his mesothelioma followed the same path of his brother’s, and also ended up returning in his right lung. Mark succumbed to the aggressive disease in 2000 when he was just 50 years old.
Having mesothelioma is rare in itself, but three diagnoses in one family is truly shocking. “Brigham and Women’s mentioned that they had never seen a secondary exposure with three cases in the same family and the same lung,” Carol explained.
Since losing so many loved ones to mesothelioma, Carol hopes to see change in the world. Asbestos is still being used in about 70% of the world today, including the United States. Though it is more strictly regulated than it used to be, certain new products can still contain a small amount of the toxin and it remains in many old buildings and homes.
Carol hopes at the very least her family’s story can help others prevent exposure and rally behind the need for a ban. “I tell as many people about my family’s exposure and how horrible it is that they are still using it,” Carol explained. “I would sign as many petitions needed to help with banning this mineral that continues to be used.”
Carol will continue to raise awareness on its dangers and advocate for a ban in honor of her family until its use is discontinued for good.