A Cancer Diagnosis 40 Years After a Hospital Renovation

Mesothelioma survivor Emily Ward and Little Bits

I worked at the Osteopathic Hospital of Maine, now part of Maine Medical Center, in the 1970s during a major renovation of the Portland-based facility.

I remember vividly what they were doing and how nurses like myself were impacted by the construction.

Medical staff at the hospital were rerouted through a corridor of the building’s boiler room to clock in and clock out each day for work. I remember walking by plastic sheeting separating us from construction areas and passing by boiler-room pipes to get to the back stairway up to the main floor.

The renovation took several months. At the time, I didn’t think anything of it. If anything, we were excited to be getting a new front lobby area and a renovated X-ray department.

This was during the height of asbestos use in America, when construction companies used a range of asbestos-containing materials for projects. The only thing I knew about asbestos at the time was that it was a fire retardant.

But I never suspected the dust stirred up from the renovation would be harmful to my health.

It wasn’t until around 2000 that I really started to become more aware of the dangers of asbestos. I remember seeing countless stories on the news about abatement of the mineral in schools and old buildings.

Mesothelioma wasn’t something I had researched. I never met anyone with it in my 43 years as a registered nurse. It was just a term I had heard but didn’t really know any details about.

But after my diagnosis of pleural mesothelioma in 2012, I made the connection between that hospital renovation and the cancer found in my chest.

Didn’t Harp on Exposure or ‘Why Me?’ Mentality

After I was diagnosed, I honestly didn’t give much thought to how I developed mesothelioma.

It was probably caused by the hospital renovation, but there’s nothing I could have done to change things.

The biggest thing that hit me when I was diagnosed is how long I had this cancer in my body before someone noticed it. I had four surgeries within a 10-year period that required chest X-rays.

While X-rays are the most basic imaging scan, they may be able to detect damage or abnormalities in the body. But that is only if the doctor reading the X-ray knows what they’re looking at.

Most doctors have never seen mesothelioma before, and they aren’t trained to know how to identify it.

It’s something I now have engrained in my primary care doctor. When I’m not feeling well, he’ll do a scan and tests, but always defer to my medical oncologist in Boston if he thinks it may be related to the mesothelioma.

Don’t Avoid Diagnostic Tests

Mesothelioma is often diagnosed in the later stages because the cancer is so rare and early symptoms resemble those of a cold or the flu.

And for someone like me — who doesn’t have a long history of heavy asbestos exposure — no one knows to look for it until things get bad.

Most people don’t want to go to the doctor. They think it’s unnecessary or not affordable, or they’re simply scared of the potential results.

I never butt in where my opinion or advice isn’t warranted. But I don’t have a problem telling friends and family that if symptoms persist for more than a few days, they need to go get it checked out.

An example that comes to mind is people who need to be on an oxygen tank but refuse it. They may not feel a big difference with the oxygen on, but I explain what it’s doing for their heart and that without it, they could have a heart attack and die.

That always gets their attention.

The same thing goes for diagnostic tests. If your choice is to live and take care of things that are wrong with you, then you need to have these tests.

Better Safe Than Sorry

My mother had colon cancer. I urge all of my bothers to get colonoscopies, and I’m very careful to ensure their primary care doctors have an accurate family history of medical issues.

I tell them it’s their choice. If they choose not to get a colonoscopy and they don’t care if one day they find out they have colon cancer, that’s their choice.

It comes down to having all the information to make the best decisions for their health and well-being.

With my background as a registered nurse, family and friends often come to me for advice. Some want me to accompany them to doctor appointments.

I’m always happy to help any way I can.

A friend’s husband recently developed a respiratory issue. I told my friend she needs to tell their doctor about her husband’s work history as a mechanic for the last 40 or so years.

They didn’t find any tumors, but they still can’t pinpoint the exact problem. I told them they need to bring up the possibility of it being mesothelioma, even if it embarrasses their doctor. I said if they tell you that isn’t it, ask them to explain how they know.

It’s too bad you have to get that aggressive, but here in rural Maine — and many other places around the U.S. — that’s what you have to do for answers.

You can’t be afraid to be wrong, because it could save your life if you aren’t.

Where to Draw the Line

There is a balance between hypochondria and being proactive with your health care. There are time frames attached to any type of symptom that determine whether it is nonacute or acute.

If you do what you should do and it resolves, it’s nonacute. When it’s not what you think it is and symptoms persist, it’s acute and you need to have it checked out.

Mesothelioma is very rare. I barely knew anything about it before 2012 and certainly never thought about being one of the roughly 3,000 people diagnosed each year in the U.S.

But if you have worked around asbestos or were in a high-risk occupation like my friend’s husband, you never should rule it out as a possibility.

No one should. Because it can happen to anyone. It happened to me.

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Mesothelioma Survivor

Emily Ward is a retired nurse and pleural mesothelioma survivor. She writes about her experience battling the disease as well as how her outlook on life has changed since her diagnosis.

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