My husband Brian and his sister Pat were young children when their parents moved the family to the asbestos mining town of Wittenoom, Western Australia. Now a ghost town, Wittenoom remains heavily contaminated by asbestos, the primary cause of mesothelioma.
Brian and Pat were less than two years apart in age. They were best friends and almost always in each other’s company. They didn’t have any expensive toys to play with, but they didn’t mind. They had fun making mud pies and playing hide-and-seek in their backyard.
There was no way Brian or Pat could have known about the asbestos dust in their backyard or that their innocent play could one day cost them their lives.
The family left Wittenoom after less than a year. While Brian and Pat experienced similar levels of asbestos exposure, what the future held for them couldn’t have been more different.
Brian developed pleural mesothelioma at age 52. He died of the disease two years later. Pat, however, has shown no signs of asbestos-related disease and remains healthy to this day.
I can’t help but wonder why. What factors caused Brian to develop mesothelioma while his sister did not? I believe the answer may involve Brian’s immune system.
Brian had excellent health until a year prior to his mesothelioma diagnosis. In our 30-odd years of marriage, I never saw him suffer from an illness besides the common cold, and he always bounced back stronger than ever.
After he took a job at a local prawn factory, things began to change. Each morning after waking, he would spend a long time blowing his nose. When I asked where all the mucus was coming from, he told me it may be related to his job.
Brian explained the factory used a chemical preservative called sodium metabisulphite that prevented black spots from forming on the prawns. He said he and his co-workers couldn’t avoid inhaling chemical-laden vapors each day.
Around the same time, Brian’s health problems started. I noticed his energy was lower than usual, and he tired more easily. I put this down to his long hours at the factory and a habit of going fishing in his spare time rather than resting.
When he experienced symptoms such as breathlessness and came down with a cold that never seemed to go away, I was convinced he had a chest infection. I couldn’t have been more mistaken.
Brian visited his doctor and learned he had pleural effusion, an accumulation of fluid in his chest cavity. After the doctor drained the fluid from his body, pathology tests confirmed a diagnosis of pleural mesothelioma. His prognosis of less than a year was devastating.
To me, at this sad time, it seemed Brian’s terminal illness had come out of nowhere. In hindsight, I can see he may have been seriously ill for quite some time.
I believe Brian’s weakened immune system was a contributing factor to his cancer. In 2001, a groundbreaking study confirmed the immune system plays a key role in protecting the body against cancer, frequently blocking tumors from developing.
Brian’s problem with mucus buildup may have been his immune system trying to rid his body of the toxic chemical he inhaled daily at work. The tiredness, the never ending cold — perhaps these were signs his immune system was no longer capable of protecting him from disease.
I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Brian heeded the warnings, quit his job at the prawn factory and concentrated on improving his health. Would this have protected him from mesothelioma? Was he more susceptible to the cancer than his sister because of his genetics?
I know I’ll never find definitive answers to these questions.
Regardless of the immune system’s role in Brian’s diagnosis, his illness changed the way I approach my own physical well-being. I no longer take my health for granted. After doing some research on the immune system, I now have the tools I need to keep my body healthy enough to ward off disease.
The immune system is our body’s defense against infection and all forms of illness. Its main purpose is to identify and destroy foreign cells. It kills germs, viruses and parasites that invade our body and make us sick.
It also seeks abnormal cells and destroys them before they form cancerous tumors in the body. But the immune system often struggles to target tumor cells, making it difficult for our bodies to fight the cancer once it develops and spreads.
Researchers are making impressive advances with immunotherapy, a type of treatment that gives the immune system a fighting chance against cancer.
The best way to empower your immune system is to live a healthy lifestyle. There are a number of ways to boost the immune system, including adopting healthy habits, getting good nutrition and reducing stress.
The immune system thrives when we have excellent overall health. Boost your immune system with these healthy habits:
A nutritious diet and regular exercise keep your immune system at its best. Some ways to improve your diet:
Managing stress, especially chronic or long-term stress, can empower the immune system and help prevent disease. Ways to manage stress:
Of course, there is no guarantee we will stay completely clear of disease in our lifetime, but there is plenty we can do to lessen the odds. Our immune system is the key to our survival, and it’s our job to keep it healthy.