When Steve McQueen was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma in the late 1970s, it came as a shock to many people. Known as the “King of Cool,” McQueen had been a rising star in the 1960s. He had a rough childhood and a reputation as a “bad boy,” and that background helped him find his way into some of the most popular movies of the time, including The Thomas Crown Affair, The Cincinnati Kid, and The Great Escape. By the early 1970s, he was one of the highest-paid actors in America.
Sadly, his stardom was cut short by an unexpected and deadly mesothelioma diagnosis. However, right up to his last breath, Steve McQueen was determined to beat the cancer despite its poor prognosis.
McQueen Exposed to Asbestos
Asbestos was used heavily in both Hollywood and the military. In addition to being inexpensive, its durability and fire resistance made it desirable for use in a wide variety of products. Hollywood even likened its appearance to snow and believed because of its heat-resistant properties, it would be a safer alternative to other fake snow products.
It’s highly likely that McQueen’s first exposure to asbestos, however, was during his time in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1947–1950. Through his service, McQueen spent time working onboard naval ships and in the shipyards.
Service aboard military ships posed some of the greatest threat for asbestos exposure. Marines, sailors, and airmen made contact with the deadly material in nearly every area of these ships, from the boiler and engine rooms to the deck and sleeping quarters. Living and working in tight quarters with poor ventilation meant any disturbed asbestos fibers would be even more concentrated in the air.
The microscopic fibers can easily be inhaled and eventually lodge themselves in the lining of the lungs. Over time, the fibers can create scarring and tumors that develop into mesothelioma. Veterans are still widely diagnosed with mesothelioma today, making up about one-third of all mesothelioma diagnoses.
Though McQueen was honorably discharged in 1950, his exposure to asbestos likely didn’t end there. Asbestos was widely used on movie sets, especially for special effects and stunts. On set and even in his own free time, McQueen loved to race cars and motorcycles. He’d wear a flame-retardant suit while he’d race for stunts or pleasure, which certainly contained asbestos. Also, many brake systems, gaskets, and other high-friction car components had asbestos in them.
Steve McQueen’s Cancer Diagnosis
It can take anywhere from 20 – 50 years after exposure for mesothelioma symptoms to start showing. McQueen first started noticing a persistent cough in late 1978 (almost 30 years after he entered military service), and soon he was having difficulty catching his breath.
Because of the ambiguity of the symptoms and the latency period after exposure, it’s very difficult for doctors to correctly diagnose the disease. Oftentimes, mesothelioma isn’t properly diagnosed until it has already advanced to a later stage. At this point, many of the standard treatment options aren’t as effective.
McQueen’s diagnosis came in December 1979, about a year after his symptoms first became noticeable. He learned he had pleural mesothelioma, which affects the lining of the lungs. The prognosis for the disease is typically very poor, with most patients given only 12–21 months to live and very few long-term survivors. His doctors in the United States explained his cancer was inoperable, but they started radiation and chemotherapy to see if they could shrink the tumors.
When the doctors told him his cancer was incurable and there wasn’t much else they could do, McQueen decided to seek help elsewhere. He reached out to Dr. William Kelly, who wasn’t actually a practicing oncologist. In fact, Dr. Kelly didn’t even have a medical license for anything but dentistry. He made claims of having a cancer treatment that could not only cure cancer, but help patients with a wide variety of diseases. In his desperation, McQueen hoped this radical treatment would somehow work for his mesothelioma.
McQueen Seeks Alternative Cancer Treatment
Many scientists regarded Dr. Kelly’s methods as quackery. He followed his own version of Gerson Therapy. This treatment was developed by physician Max Gerson to help patients who had migraines, though he later adapted it as a cancer treatment.
Dr. Kelly’s spin on the Gerson Therapy was based on the belief that all cancers stem from lack of a pancreatic enzyme. This method of treatment centered around unorthodox methods including a coffee enema, frequent shampooing of the body, a high intake of vitamins and minerals every day, and a very strict diet.
The treatment also included a daily dose of laetrile, a cancer drug created from the pits of apricots. The drug was never approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, and the National Cancer Institute even said its use is ineffective and dangerous. In later studies, it was shown this type of therapy actually worsened the patient’s quality of life.
As McQueen sought out this controversial treatment in Mexico, he struggled to keep the news of his diagnosis private. When he first found out, he only told very close family and friends. But in March 1980, the National Enquirer broke the news of his “heroic battle” with cancer.
It wasn’t until his new doctors claimed he was improving that McQueen publicly spoke out about his diagnosis and finding new treatment methods in Mexico. In a taped radio broadcast, McQueen even said, “Mexico is showing the world a new way of fighting cancer through nonspecific metabolic therapies. Thank you for helping to save my life.”
McQueen’s supposed recovery, however, was very short-lived. Though his American doctors had previously warned him that his heart wasn’t strong enough for surgery, his new doctors decided to operate anyway. Though the surgery itself went smoothly and they removed some tumors from his neck, McQueen died from cardiac arrest the next day. He was just 50 years old.
Mesothelioma is a rare, deadly disease, but it is completely preventable. Though the prognosis is still typically poor today, there are more emerging treatment options available for some patients. When McQueen was diagnosed, mesothelioma wasn’t very well studied. Researchers have made some progress on promising treatment and diagnostic techniques recently, so hopefully in the future patients will have a better chance of beating the odds.