The e-mail from my older sister came out of the blue. She had mentioned that she had been having some chest pain and was having a bit of trouble breathing and that she was making an appointment with her doctor. She ended up in the emergency room before she had a chance to keep that visit with her physician. One evening after she had struggled to catch her breath she had decided that she needed help as soon as possible. They did all of the ordinary tests that hospitals usually do in emergency cases, chest x-rays, blood work and so on. They admitted her and began the long process of trying to find out what led to the respiratory problems.
The doctors had decided to help her breathe they would insert a tube down into her lung and look around. While they were down there they took a tissue sample, to test for various irregularities. These samples were sent to labs where they would be analyzed as soon as possible. The tests were uncomfortable and a bit painful for my sister, but the fear of not knowing why she couldn’t breathe was harder on her. They decided to go into her lung through her chest cavity and try to extract the fluid that they could see in the layers, or covering that surrounded her lungs. Most internal organs are surrounded by those sacs or coverings which are called mesothelium. They pulled out more than a quart of excess fluid through this very painful extraction and used what the doctor called a talcum powder to help reseal the lung lining, in the hope that they would not refill. The great thing that happened from this procedure was that my sister could breathe normally again. The horrible thing about all the tests that they did that day and in the days following was that we found out that sis, had an advanced form of what is called mesothelioma. She was told she was terminal and that usually after being diagnosed at this stage, most people die within three or four months.
I immediately called my sister in tears. You see we live far apart from each other. I live in Southern California and sis lives in Florida. We haven’t seen each other for more than 22 years. Finances and living life have kept us apart. I love her and she loves me and we spoke on the phone and wrote back and forth, but I needed to hear her voice. She was calm and collected and I cried and asked her how she was feeling and what she was thinking and if she was afraid. She spent most of the time on the phone reassuring me. She told me that she was ready to face whatever lay ahead for her. She was at peace with life and had decided not to pursue any more treatment. They told her that there is no cure for mesothelioma though they can try chemotherapy or surgery to possibly extend the time she might have left. After careful consideration and weighing the long term effects of the treatments available, my courageous big sister decided that she would, “let go and let God”. Most of her life my sister has been an Atheist, and during the last ten years of so, she has found peace in her faith in God.
Most research has found that mesothelioma develops after being exposed to asbestos. Asbestos is a common group of minerals that occur naturally as masses of strong flexible fibers that can be separated into threads and woven. The woven threads are then used in various products and occupations around the world. Asbestos has been used commercially since the 1800s and use became more prevalent during World War Two. In the 1940s millions of workers throughout the U.S. were exposed to asbestos fibers in shipyards, mines and steel mills. Asbestos has also routinely been used in brake linings, roofing shingles, flooring products, textiles, heating and insulation. Mesothelioma develops over a period of years after exposure to asbestos. This developmental time period can be as much as 30 to 50 years. You can find out more about mesothelioma a this Web-site www.cancer.gov/cancertopics .
Mesothelioma is caused when cells in one of the body’s linings, becomes abnormal and starts dividing wildly without any order. Cancer that spreads throughout the body from the original site is called metastasis. Whether or not this step has been reached, affects the stage of cancer that is diagnosed. Stage four cancer, is usually terminal. Earlier stages of most cancers have brighter diagnosis. Cancer in modern times can be treated in various ways and many people diagnosed with cancer under treatments may extend their lives by many years. or possible even cured. In mesothelioma however, there is no cure yet.
My Father died years ago from a form of lung cancer. He had worked for years as a fireman in a steel mill in Ohio. Daily he wore a suit made of asbestos to protect him from the heat of the giant furnaces used to process steel. Daily he came home with those asbestos fibers on his clothing as we would run into his arms to greet him. Will I be diagnosed also with mesothelioma someday? I don’t know. I hope not but it is a real possibility that I must face.
The miracle in my sister’s diagnosis has been that after more than a year and a half since she was originally diagnosed, she is still alive. My sis is not only alive she is doing well and though not cured, she is continuing to live her life with quality. She has been given the gift of time. She awakes each morning thanking God for the chance to see another day. She has stopped taking things for granted. She has learned a valuable lesson that we can all learn. Each day is a precious gift that comes with no guarantees. We cannot control the number of days that we are given but we can control what we choose to do with those days.
My sister’s decision not to undergo any types of chemotherapy or surgery was her choice and might not be right for someone else. The important thing is to investigate what choices are available to you if you have been diagnosed with cancer. Then you can discuss those choices with loved ones and choose for yourself what is right for you. I only hope that if I am diagnosed with a form of cancer someday I will be as brave as my sister and I will have learned from the lessons that my sister has taught me. My sister may die eventually, as we all must. Until that day comes I will look to her as a role model as a way to live life. My sister is my hero.
Sources for information found in this article may be found at www.mesotheliomaweb.org , www.cancer.gov/cancertopics