This is the first time I’ve written a blog post on request. When Heather Von St. James contacted me and I looked into the reason behind her appeal, I knew it was something I had to do! With her shock of silver hair and vibrant smile, Heather looks like the picture of health, but that hasn’t always been the case. At 36 years of age, just 3 1/2 months after the birth of her only child, she was diagnosed with cancer and given 15 months to live. That was in November of 2005. Miraculously, over eight years later, she is alive and well and has dedicated herself to increasing awareness of mesothelioma, her particular kind of cancer.
I really don’t like the word cancer; not just because of the fear that is so closely associated with it, but because it is such vague and nebulous term. Cancer is not just one disease, but many. It is a term that is used to describe any disease in which abnormal cells divide without control and are able to invade other tissues. There are over 200 kinds of cancer!
Like my neuroendocrine tumours (NETS), mesothelioma is a rare cancer that is difficult to diagnose because, in the early stages, it can be easily mistaken for other illnesses. Symptoms are all too often ignored or dismissed by people who are inclined to attribute them to common every day ailments. That’s where the similarity ends, however. While NETS is a slow growing chronic cancer, mesothelioma is aggressive and deadly. The cause of neuroendocrine tumours is unknown but this is also not the case with mesothelioma. Not only is the cause known, it is preventable!
The only known cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos. Heather never worked with asbestos, but her father did. Secondhand exposure as a child was enough to make her sick decades later. Because of the disease’s latency period of 30 to 50 years, it often doesn’t show up until long after exposure.
After reading Heather’s plea for help in spreading the word about mesothelioma and reading up on the disease, I wondered how the situation here in Canada compared to the U.S. where she resides. I was shocked to discover that, after climbing steadily over the past two decades, Canada’s mesothelioma rate is now one of the highest in the world!
Our country’s first asbestos mine opened in 1879. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, an increasing number of mines took advantage of the large asbestos deposits found in Quebec, Newfoundland, British Columbia and the Yukon. Manufacturers began to produce a variety of asbestos-containing products that would be used in Canada and worldwide. While the asbestos industry boomed and mine owners and company executives got rich, workers got sick, suffered from breathing difficulties, coughed up blood and died! Canadian mortality rates among miners were studied as early as the 1920s and evidence exists to show that asbestos company executives withheld negative reports from both their employees and the public. By the 1970s, doctors had declared Canada’s asbestos mining towns to be among the most dangerous places in the world to live, with rates of mesothelioma and other asbestos related diseases increasing. Asbestos opponents and those weary of seeing Canada’s mesothelioma rate rise celebrated in 2011 when last two remaining mines closed but, because of the renovation and demolition of the country’s aging buildings that used asbestos as insulation, the mesothelioma rate has been rising among construction and maintenance workers. Canada has long resisted a universal ban of asbestos as proposed by the World Health Organization (WHO) and continues to be a major exporter of asbestos to many countries who do not monitor asbestos exposure or regulate its use.
Is it any wonder that Heather asks us to join our voices with hers in speaking up against such an obvious wrong? For more information on mesothelioma and to read Heather’s story in her own words, visit the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance.