My father served as a military police officer in the 1960s, but after serving our country, he landed a job at a paper mill. He worked there for most of his adult life. It was his only job for as long as I can remember.
He worked hard and pulled many overtime shifts. Most months, he was off only one or two days. He earned a supervisor position, and he loved his job and the people with whom he worked. He made a decent wage and was able to provide for our family.
All was well, until he developed mesothelioma in 1992.
We now know my dad’s job at the paper mill exposed him to asbestos, a toxic mineral fiber that causes other asbestos-related illnesses. I had to wonder, though, why didn’t everyone who worked at the mill develop mesothelioma too?
Research shows my father’s genetics may have played a role in causing his cancer.
Escalating Health Problems
In the summer of 1992, my dad suffered from fatigue and started having trouble breathing. He was in his early forties, and at first, he attributed his symptoms to the natural aging process.
But his health started to deteriorate further, and he began to worry something might be wrong.
Before symptoms appeared, my dad didn’t have any health problems. In fact, I can only remember him being sick once when I was little. He had the flu and missed two days of work.
By the fall of 1992, Dad couldn’t breathe well enough to make it up the stairs in our house. He went to see our family doctor, who ran some tests. The doctor suspected cancer and referred him to an oncologist.
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A Difficult Diagnosis
I can remember the day my parents told me about my father’s diagnosis. He had mesothelioma, which at the time meant a whole hill of beans to me. I had no idea what that meant. I just knew it made my mother cry.
What I did understand was my dad’s health was getting worse and worse.
Most people in the mesothelioma community are aware asbestos exposure causes mesothelioma. But two of my uncles worked with my dad, and neither developed an asbestos-related disease.
One died of unrelated causes before my father; the other is alive and well today in Ohio. In my mind, I continued to question why this had to happen to my dad.
An important goal of mesothelioma research is to gain a better understanding of why only a small percentage of people with repeated workplace exposures to asbestos develop mesothelioma. This area of study has revealed the answer likely lies in the genes we inherit from our parents.
Genetics and Mesothelioma
According to Drs. Gregory Fuhrer and Angeline Lazarus, two researchers well known for their study on genetics and mesothelioma, “Genes appear to be important in the regulation of cell cycles.”
The cells in our body have a life cycle just like us. They grow, multiply and eventually die. In one study, Fuhrer and Lazarus describe a “tumor suppressor gene,” which forces cells to self-destruct when asbestos or another carcinogen causes unrepairable damage to their DNA.
The goal is to destroy the cell before the damage to the cell’s DNA causes it to turn cancerous, multiply out of control and form tumors.
Understanding Tumor Suppressor Genes
It can be a bit confusing sifting through research reports laced with medical jargon.
To learn more about tumor suppressor genes, I turned to “Tumor Supressor Genes: The Guardians of our Cells,” a 1997 fact sheet authored by Madhuri Putta.
Dr. Suzanne M. Snedeker, former associate director for translational research at Cornell University’s Breast Cancer and Environmental Risk Factors research program, supervised the development of the fact sheet.
The fact sheet defines tumor suppressor genes as genes that monitor and regulate how cells divide and increase in number.
“Tumor suppressor genes function as guardians of our cells by preventing cells with DNA damage from dividing and passing on harmful mutations to daughter cells,” the fact sheet shows.
For example, mesothelioma may arise when asbestos exposure causes genetic damage to healthy cells. The damage can lead to erratic, unchecked cell division. Tumor suppressor genes can usually detect something is wrong and step in to block the formation of cancer cells, preventing the development of cancer.
But if someone with a history of asbestos exposure has a defective tumor suppressor gene, it can increase the person’s likelihood of developing mesothelioma.
“If a mutated tumor suppressor gene is already present in the sperm of the father or egg of the mother, this genetic damage can be passed on to their children,” according to the fact sheet.
Research shows some people are born with mutated tumor suppressor genes, but it is an extremely rare occurrence, and it doesn’t necessarily mean a person is going to develop cancer.
Translating the Research into Real Life
Heaven only knows whether my father had mutated tumor suppressor genes. With the tremendous cost of genetic testing, most people will never know if the genes they inherited from their parents make them more likely to develop mesothelioma.
I suppose some folks at risk for mesothelioma could have genetic testing done to find out more about their likelihood of developing cancer — if they are blessed enough to afford it or have an insurance plan that covers it.
Regardless, genetic research is useful to us in some regard as it helps us to understand why some people who are exposed to asbestos develop mesothelioma while others do not.