Four years after his pleural mesothelioma diagnosis, Chris Gibney started building the home he always wanted.
This month — 12 years after his diagnosis — he and his wife will welcome the first group of students from a Montessori school in Germany to that home, which sits within their three-acre nursery in a wildlife buffer zone.
“I have a lot to live for,” Gibney told Asbestos.com from the home in Northampton, England. “I’ve been very, very lucky. And I kind of think, the more you have to live for, the more you will live.”
Gibney, 70, exceeded all expectations for someone with pleural mesothelioma, appreciative for an excellent medical team that twice orchestrated the surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy that has allowed him to survive. He’s also thankful for a family support group that sparks his passion to live every day.
“This is not about me. It’s about the people around me; the things they do,” he said. “Those are the ones you are living for. I don’t know how anyone could do this on their own. You need a reason, a lot of them, to live.”
Gibney’s reasons start with his wife, two children, and four (soon to be five) grandchildren.
They include his mother, Vera, who was diagnosed with cancer two months after he was. Vera died four months later but only after being assured that her son’s therapy was working well.
“She’s been my inspiration through much of this,’’ Gibney said. “She was one brave lady.”
Reasons also include students who will be coming in small groups throughout the spring and summer to learn English, a little horticulture at the nursery and experience a different way of life outside their own country.
“We’re looking forward to the children coming. We’re officially retired, but we couldn’t turn this down,” he said. “My daughter-in-law teaches at the school, and they really needed a place to do this. My wife has handled most of it — she’s the brains of the outfit — and I’m just helping get the property ready. We have a lot going on.”
Gibney and his wife, Judy, spent seven years living in a caravan on the property, patiently awaiting the zoning approval to build the dream home they designed.
For more than a year, his family doctor prescribed antibiotics to combat what they thought was a stubborn infection in his chest causing recurrent symptoms. They didn’t realize it was much more serious.
When nothing seemed to work, Gibney went to a specialist who diagnosed him with pleural mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive cancer with no definitive cure and a poor prognosis.
He fainted and fell to the floor.
“I was devastated. The trauma was shocking. Apparently, I passed out. It took me a couple weeks to get back in tune with myself,” he said. “Building the house had been so important — we had waited so long — and I thought it was gone. I thought, what about my wife. I felt bad for the people around me.”
Fortunately, he found thoracic surgeon and mesothelioma specialist Dr. David Waller, who performed the aggressive pleurectomy and decortication surgery in 2005. He and oncologist Dr. Philip Camilleri coordinated Gibney’s care.
Gibney returned in 2011 for another aggressive surgery that included replacing and rebuilding part of his diaphragm, along with more chemotherapy and radiation.
“Before the first surgery, I was told I might have another two years to live. But after the surgery, Mr. Waller said five years, which at least allowed me to start building the house. And for that, I’m forever grateful,” he said. “I don’t know why, but my doctors instilled so much confidence in me that I never had any doubt that I would be well again.”
Gibney returns every year for imaging tests that have shown no new cancerous growth. No one is saying he is cured, but he is living a much healthier life today with an extended life expectancy.
He tires easier than before. Some of his muscles are gone, but he doesn’t complain. He just moves at a slower pace.
At his wife’s urging, he changed his diet significantly, staying away from processed foods and anything with the preservative sodium nitrate, which he believes made him more susceptible to cancer.
The days of feasting on bacon, sausages and bratwurst are long gone.
“People tell me I have a positive attitude, but what’s the point of not having a positive attitude? You have to find something you believe in, and I did,” he said. “I’ve got too much to live for to think any other way.”
For much of his working life, Gibney worked as an inspector at mortar manufacturing plants, making sure safety issues were followed. His job made him wonder about his earlier years when he scraped old paint off asbestos gutters.
As an inspector, he was well aware that asbestos was toxic and what a diagnosis of mesothelioma meant.
“For someone just diagnosed, you’ll feel like you’re in a world all alone at first. A real shock. But after it wears off, just don’t give up,” Gibney advised. “Whatever treatment the experts say you need, just do it. For me, it was never in doubt. I had so much to live for.”
Gibney spent the past few weeks making sure the nursery is running smoothly. The first group of eight students and two teachers will arrive soon.
There will be chickens to feed, plants to water, English lessons to learn and wildlife across the property to admire.
“We’re really looking forward to this. I hope everything goes smoothly,” he said. “My doctors, they don’t like to use the word ‘cured,’ but as far as I’m concerned, I’m hoping to live to be 90. I got a lot to live for.”