Stories from Survivors

Physician with Pleural Mesothelioma Still Helping Others

Written By:
Apr 19, 2022
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Written By: Tim Povtak,
April 19, 2022

Cheryl Pilkington remembers riding on the weekends as a child to her father’s workshop – a matchplate foundry – and happily playing with her big sister in the thick plaster dust that was everywhere.

They loved it. But 60 years later, those fond memories came back to haunt her.

Pilkington was diagnosed in the spring of 2020 with pleural mesothelioma, caused by the inhalation of plaster dust tainted with asbestos that was a major part of her father’s shop back then in Coffeyville, Kansas.

Kids at play there were unknowingly kids at risk.

Pilkington, 73, is an eye-opening example of the long latency period this deadly cancer can have. She’s also an inspirational mesothelioma survivor who refuses to let it spoil her life and those wonderful family memories from long ago.

Her continued optimism is a lesson to be learned.

“My sister blames herself. She says she used to bury my head in that plaster,” Pilkington told The Mesothelioma Center at Asbsestos.com with a smile. “But I just tell her, ‘Don’t worry about it. We had a great time there. We really did. Remember the good times.’”

Survivor Helps Others in Need

Pilkington spent much of her adult life healing patients as a physician. She is board certified in family medicine but practiced mostly in hospital emergency rooms.

Helping others was what she did – and still does today – despite mesothelioma cancer.

Cheryl Pilkington and a mission nurse
Mesothelioma survivor Cheryl Pilkington, a physician, with a fellow health care provider on a medical mission trip.

Although Pilkington has slowed considerably, no longer utilizing the golf and tennis amenities she once enjoyed in her retirement community, she stays busy.

She contributes time and effort to her church, the local homeless shelter, the veteran’s club and a home for disabled children.

Much of Pilkington’s efforts involve sewing, and she often helps make quilts, clothing and holiday outfits for the kids.

“It’s just who I am,” she said. “I try to live every day as positively as I can. I’ve been lucky.”

Mesothelioma Awareness Leads to Diagnosis

Pilkington was fortunate to be diagnosed with mesothelioma in stage 2, which is earlier and more treatable than when most are diagnosed. Her background in medicine sparked the mesothelioma diagnosis.

Before her scheduled knee replacement with robotic surgery in February 2020, Pilkington received a routine chest X-ray that initially attracted little attention from the medical staff.

A month later, though, a puzzling shortness of breath prompted Pilkington to take a closer look at that X-ray she had taken home. She noticed an abnormality, which she brought to the attention of her doctors.

More tests eventually led to a biopsy and the devastating mesothelioma diagnosis, which stunned most everyone but her.

“They never suspected it, a female who was not in any business where there was asbestos exposure,” Pilkington said. “They were shocked when the biopsy came back, but only until they heard my history.”

In his later years her father, who died of heart problems, had developed asbestosis, a less deadly disease related to asbestos exposure.

Treatment Includes Surgery and Chemotherapy

Pilkington underwent aggressive pleurectomy and decortication surgery at Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute in Little Rock, Arkansas, under the care of thoracic surgeon Dr. Matthew Steliga.

Even before going home after surgery she needed a second procedure to clear blood clots that had formed throughout her thoracic cavity.

Over the past two years Pilkington has been treated with different chemotherapy drugs, but there were mixed results in preventing new tumor growth.

The recently approved immunotherapy combination of Opdivo and Yervoy failed to work for her. She is currently receiving the chemotherapy drug gemcitabine (Gemzar), which has produced two consecutive PET scans with no new tumor growth.

“I’m a realist. I’m ready to do whatever I can to extend my life, but I’m ready for whatever comes my way,” Pilkington said. “I take each day as it comes. I’ve been lucky in a lot of ways. And for that, I’m thankful.”

Mesothelioma Survivor’s Faith Keeps Her Strong

Pilkington draws considerable strength from her faith in God.

“I went through a period of depression and anxiety early, but I’m past that now,” she said. “I have trust in the Lord and know that whatever happens, when the time comes, I’m going to be with him in heaven.”

Pilkington believes strongly in a support group that includes family and friends. She talks often with her son and two stepdaughters. Her husband died in 2018, and she lives today with her dog Tasha.

Her neighbors have been wonderful in making sure she stays active and in touch.

“I’m like their project,” Pilkington said. “It’s a village, where everyone looks after each other.”

Her older sister and younger brother, who played with her growing up, are tested regularly for any signs of a problem related to asbestos exposure. And, for now, both are well.

Pilkington advises others to reject the initial gloom and doom that often accompanies a diagnosis of pleural mesothelioma.

“Don’t spend time looking at the literature regarding mesothelioma. Those figures you read are just statistics. Those are just averages. And it’s a pretty gloomy picture,” she said. “I’ve told others, you might be the lucky one who lives a very long time.”

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