Donna Summer: The Disco Queen’s Legend Lives on after Death from Asbestos Cancer

LaDonna Adrian Gaines, better known by her stage name Donna Summer, soared to fame in the 1970s, becoming widely known as the “Queen of Disco.” Her songs like “Bad Girls,” “Last Dance,” “Hot Stuff” and countless other hits helped her become one of the world’s best-selling artists of all time, a five-time Grammy award winner, and frequent chart topper.

What began as a hobby of singing gospel in church, quickly grew into a full-blown career as she entered her teens. It began with Summer joining a blue rock band before graduation, and then taking a turn in the musical Hair, which allowed her to travel to Europe where she met and began a career-long collaboration with Italian music producer Giorgio Moroder. After seeing some success overseas with a new album, Summer returned to America with her first hit, “Love to Love You Baby.” Thanks partially to her time abroad, Summer quickly amassed a global following, idolized by many.

But even in the ebbs and flows of the success of her music career, no one expected the disco legend’s reign would end so suddenly following a battle with lung cancer that Summer believed stemmed from exposure following the events of September 11, 2001.

Toxic Exposure After 9/11

The world changed on 9/11, with many still experiencing the full impact from that tragic day, including negative impacts on their health. As the buildings collapsed, thousands of tons of toxins filled the air, spreading through a large radius of New York City. Studies have shown the air contained at least 2,500 potential contaminants from the various building materials, including asbestos, lead, mercury, and fiberglass.

The last of the debris from Ground Zero wasn’t removed until that summer, leaving thousands of residents and first responders at a great risk of being exposed to these toxins for a good ten months during the lengthy cleanup process. Numerous studies have revealed the serious health risks tens of thousands of people now face because of their exposure, including cancer, aerodigestive disorders, PTSD, and other respiratory conditions.

Since so many of these diseases, like mesothelioma or asbestos cancer, can take decades to develop, many responders and New York City residents are only now beginning to see the effects of their exposure. At the most recent estimates, the World Trade Center Health Program, which was established to offer dedicated, compassionate care to those directly impacted by the events of 9/11, has over 70,000 Americans enrolled, of which about 21,000 are estimated to be getting treatment for conditions caused by the toxic and hazardous air.

Summer lived near the Twin Towers, which put her at a great risk of exposure. In interviews, Summer revealed how scared she was to even go outside, not wanting to be exposed to the lingering toxic dust in the air. In interviews, some of her friends explained that the star went into a deep depression around this time and experienced great paranoia, claiming she hung silk sheets in her dressing room to prevent dust from getting in and sprayed disinfectant in the air often.

A Quiet Battle with Lung Cancer

Though it was never proven, Summer consistently maintained that her cancer was a result of the toxic dust from 9/11. Despite her supposed precautionary measures, Summer believed without a doubt that her lung cancer diagnosis years later stemmed from her close proximity to Ground Zero. While a nonsmoker herself, some of her friends questioned if her countless nights in smokey clubs and around smokers could have also damaged her lungs, but the singer never wavered in her opinion.

Though smoking is the most common cause of lung cancer, studies have attributed at least 3 – 4% of all lung cancer cases are caused by asbestos exposure. Fibers may become lodged in the lung tissue, causing irritation over time that can develop into tumors. Asbestos-related lung cancer has a long latency period too, and often begins with more vague symptoms like a persistent cough and chest pain.

Summer never openly discussed her cancer diagnosis with the media, making her diagnosis and subsequent death a surprise to countless adoring fans. Summer sadly died in May 2012 at just 63 years old, surrounded by her family in her Florida home.

A Music Legend

While it may never be definitively proven whether or not Summer’s diagnosis stemmed from toxic exposure, it is clear that her music and legacy will live on for years to come. In 2013, not long after Summer's death, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2016, Billboard (magazine) recognized the artist as the sixth most successful dance musician of all time.

Shortly after her death, an outpouring of sorrow and love for her swept across the media from fans, fellow celebrities, and others in the music industry. Many expressed their grief at losing such a talent, and one of the greatest voices ever. In a ceremony at the 2012 Billboard Music Awards, fellow singer Natasha Bedingfield helped pay tribute to the star with a performance of her Academy Award-winning song, “Last Dance.” Bedingfield remembered Summer as “a remarkable woman who brought so much light and who inspired many women, including myself, through her music. And if we can remember her through her music, this will never really be the last dance." Likewise, music producer Quincy Jones called Summer “the heartbeat and soundtrack of a decade.” Even then-President Barack Obama offered a tribute, saying, “Her voice was unforgettable, and the music industry has lost a legend far too soon.”

Every year on the anniversary of her death, Summer’s husband and collaborator, Bruce Sudano, takes time to remember his late wife. Most recently in 2017, he performed a livestream version of “Beautiful History” off his album Angels on a Carousel, which he wrote as a memorial to her, from their home in Nashville, Tennessee.

Summer said in many interviews she didn’t want to be remembered for just one thing or one kind of music. She won many awards and contributed to many different genres during her reign as the Queen of Disco, and she has been inducted into both the Dance Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It seems in her lasting legacy, the beloved singer got her wish.