Mesothelioma is a cancer most often associated with military service and blue-collar professions, but the asbestos-created disease has touched all walks of life. That includes the rich and the famous.
Professional athletes, Olympic gold medalists, government officials, musicians and world-renowned actors, such as Steve McQueen, all have died from mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer that is diagnosed in an estimated 3,000 Americans each year.
The only common link to all of them is an exposure to asbestos, the naturally occurring mineral that is toxic and potentially fatal when its fibers are released into the air and inhaled or ingested. It can take anywhere from 15 to 50 years after exposure before the symptoms become obvious.
Here is a Who’s Who of the most recognizable people who fought mesothelioma:
Steve McQueen, Actor (1930-1980)
Steve McQueen, nicknamed The King of Cool, was well known for his anti-hero roles in “The Magnificent Seven,” “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” and “Sand Pebbles.” By the early 1970s, he was one of America’s highest-paid actors.
McQueen believed his exposure to asbestos started in the U.S. Marines Corps, then continued during his days racing motorcycles and cars, his passion, when he wore the flame-retardant driver suits.
He took his fight against mesothelioma to Mexico, where he traveled in search of alternative treatments. He died from a heart attack, shortly after surgery to remove a large tumor.
Here is a modern-day Ford Mustang commercial that uses old, classic footage of McQueen.
Joe Sample, Musician (1939-2014)
The Houston-born jazz pioneer founded The Crusaders from the bebop band that started when he was in high school. Sample was known for pushing the boundaries of jazz music by combining it with a distinct blues and soul sound.
He worked with other legendary performers, including Miles Davis, B. B. King, Eric Clapton, George Benson, Jimmy Witherspoon, Steely Dan and The Supremes.
After The Crusaders disbanded, Sample went solo and recorded “Ashes to Ashes,” a personal album that focused on the struggles of blacks at the time and their efforts to save their communities.
Nicole Kidman covered his song, “One Day I’ll Fly Away,” in the Oscar-winning film “Moulin Rouge.”
Sean Sasser, MTV Star and AIDS Activist (1968-2013)
Sean Sasser became an MTV celebrity in the early 1990s on the television show “The Real World: San Francisco.” He and Pedro Zamora helped break cultural barriers in America with a commitment ceremony on TV that became the most compelling story line of the series. They were the first openly gay, openly HIV-positive couple on television.
Zamora died in 1994, and Sasser became an AIDS activist and educator. He lived for more than 25 years with HIV, benefiting from the medical advancements that were made in the mid-’90s in combating the disease.
Sasser died in August 2013, less than two months after being diagnosed with mesothelioma at the age of 44. It’s likely that the HIV virus, which he had held in check for so many years, sparked rapid growth of the mesothelioma cancer. He was living in Washington, D.C., working as a pastry chef before he died.
Ed Lauter, Actor (1938-2013)
Veteran character actor Ed Lauter worked for more than 40 years in the film and television industry, playing supporting roles alongside stars like Burt Reynolds (“The Longest Yard”), Clint Eastwood (“Trouble with the Curve”), Charles Bronson (“Death Wish 3”), Tom Cruise (“Born on the Fourth of July”) and George C. Scott (“The New Centurions”).
Lauter, 74, was in the midst of a film project when he was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma in May 2013. He died less than six months later.
Lauter appeared in more than 200 films and television projects, playing a variety of roles. He was best known for playing authority figures and con men, often in crime stories. He also worked as a stand-up comedian, where he did impersonations of Humphrey Bogart, Burt Lancaster and James Cagney, among others.
His history of exposure to asbestos, which likely caused his mesothelioma cancer, was unclear at the time of his death.
Others with name recognition who battled mesothelioma are: Bruce Vento (Congressman, 2000); John MacDougall (Member of Parliament, 2008); Barbara Harris (Novelist, 2008); Dennis Newinski (Minnesota State Representative, 2009); Ian Cundy (Bishop, 2009); Paul Rudolph (Architect, 1997); Stanley Wasiak (Baseball manager, 1992); and Stephen Gould (Scientist, 2002).
Gould is considered a survivor of the disease. He fought it for many years and died of unrelated causes.
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Merlin Olsen, Football Player, Actor, Broadcaster (1940-2010)
Merlin Olsen starred in football for many years with the Los Angeles Rams — he reached the Pro Football Hall of Fame — and transitioned easily into his post-playing days as a successful actor. He starred in the television series Little House on the Prairie. He also became a broadcaster with NBC, working as an analyst during National Football League games.
Mesothelioma was a shocking diagnosis for him.
Olsen attributed his exposure to asbestos to his childhood when he worked after school doing manual labor. He also handled drywall when he was older. Before he died, he filed a lawsuit against 20th Century Fox and NBC Studios, attributing more exposure to his time in television.
Hamilton Jordan, White House Chief of Staff (1944-2008)
Jordan helped manage the election campaign of President Jimmy Carter in 1976. He then became Carter’s chief of staff, serving as the special negotiator on the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1979.
He fought off three other cancers — non-Hodgkins lymphoma, prostate cancer and skin cancer — before succumbing to mesothelioma. He attributed his lymphoma to Agent Orange in Vietnam during his military service. He believed that his exposure to asbestos, which led to his mesothelioma, came from his years in the military.
After his earlier battles with cancer, Jordan and his wife founded Camp Sunshine in Decatur, Georgia, a place for children with the disease. He also was an active fundraiser for cancer research.
Terry McCann, Olympic Gold Medalist (1934-2006)
Terry McCann won his gold medal in wrestling at the 1960 Olympics, not long after his two years of working in an oil refinery in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he was exposed to the deadly asbestos fibers. While still preparing for the Olympics, McCann would come home every day from the refinery with a silvery dust in his hair and on his clothes, unaware it eventually would kill him.
More than 40 years after that Olympic triumph, after years of coaching, a career in business and a life revolving around his fitness regimen, McCann was diagnosed with mesothelioma. He became an outspoken critic of the asbestos industry and the CEOs of the corporations that produced the toxic products.
Paul Gleason, Actor (1939-2006)
Paul Gleason made a career out of playing unlikeable characters, particularly tough guys and unscrupulous, white-collar criminals. He appeared in 140 films or television shows, beginning in the 1960s. His best known parts came in “The Breakfast Club,” “Trading Places” and “Die Hard.”
Gleason believed that his exposure to asbestos stemmed from working construction jobs as a teenager. As an athlete before his acting began, he played college football at Florida State University (he was a teammate at FSU of actor Burt Reynolds), then signed a professional baseball contract with the Cleveland Indians.
Here is a clip of Gleason from “The Breakfast Club.”
Warren Zevon, Musician (1947-2003)
Warren Zevon was a unique singer and songwriter with a cult-like following, known best for his hits “Werewolves of London,” “Excitable Boy,” “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” and “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” He produced his final album “The Wind,” shortly after his mesothelioma diagnosis in 2002, recording songs with other rockers of his era: Bruce Springsteen, Joe Walsh, Jackson Brown and Tom Petty.
His son, Jordan Zevon, has become a spokesman for the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO). Although Zevon never said where his asbestos exposure was, Jordan has speculated that it came from his father’s childhood when his dad regularly played in the attic of his father’s carpet store in Arizona.
Shortly after his death in 2004, he was nominated for five Grammy Awards, and he won two, one of them with Springsteen for Best Rock Performance By A Duo.
Zevon was quite frank about his disease, and he talked about it in his last television appearance on “Late Show with David Letterman.” Here is a clip from that last appearance.
Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Jr., U.S. Chief of Naval Operations (1920-2000)
Elmo Zumwalt was a highly-decorated veteran who became the youngest man to serve as the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, assuming that position during the Vietnam War era.
His believed his exposure to asbestos came throughout his Naval career, where he served on different ships that were loaded with the toxic fibers. His son Elmo Zumwalt, III, died of cancer at age 42. His father believed his son’s cancer stemmed from his service in Vietnam, where he was exposed to Agent Orange, the deadly herbicide which had received approval for use by the elder Zumwalt.
After retiring from the Navy after 32 years, Zumwalt made an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate. He left behind a legacy of trying to improve conditions for servicemen.