Catherine Cook wasn’t there two months ago to see the loveliest wedding ever hosted at the Southern Oaks Plantation in New Orleans.
She wasn’t there to see her oldest daughter glowing, to see her walk down the aisle in that beautiful dress, to hear the heart-felt wedding vows. She wasn’t there to help Rebecca prepare for the big day like mothers do.
No, she missed all that. Catherine Cook wasn’t there for what would have been the happiest day in both of their lives.
Yet she was very much there in spirit.
Catherine died in 2010 at age 56, poisoned by deadly asbestos fibers, becoming yet another innocent victim of mesothelioma, the cancer that shouldn’t be.
Rebecca, though, made sure her mother’s memory was present on her wedding day.
Every member of the wedding party even the cute little ring bearer and every guest in attendance was wearing a Mesothelioma Awareness wristband. There were 250 people in attendance. And 250 wristbands.
“My mother was like my best friend. We used to double date sometimes, her and my stepfather, me and my fiancé. I know she would have loved the wedding,” Rebecca said recently from her home in nearby Marrero, Louisiana. “We wanted everyone to be aware of what this terrible disease does, and how senseless it is.”
Raising Awareness for Mesothelioma
Rebecca has made it her goal to raise awareness and understanding of mesothelioma, a disease she knew nothing about before Catherine was diagnosed. As her mother battled mesothelioma, Rebecca scrambled for answers she never could find.
“It still amazes me how little people know about mesothelioma. When people ask me about my wristband, I’m happy to explain. Some of my friends still wear their bands,” she said. “Even my mom, when she knew she was dying, she’d say, `I wish I had gotten breast cancer instead. At least then, people would understand what I have.’ “
Catherine was the picture of health not long before she was first diagnosed. She was active. She worked out regularly. She was on vacation, hiking with her husband on the trails of the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee when she suddenly was stopped by a shortness of breath. She was exhausted and puzzled.
After being misdiagnosed at least twice, she was told she had mesothelioma in March of 2009. It was attacking her lungs, and it had already spread.
The family didn’t wait, taking her to the country’s best doctors and hospitals looking for help and for hope, traveling first to Texas, then to Boston, but to no avail. Catherine died in less than a year.
“It’s such a terrible thing to watch someone go through this. I saw what my mom went through, and it was like watching someone drown, like she was slowly suffocating,” Rebecca said. “It just seemed like compared to most diseases, the doctors didn’t have any real answers.”
Secondhand Asbestos Exposure
Every year U.S. doctors diagnose 2,000 to 3,000 people with mesothelioma. Few doctors specialize in treating it. Finding one of them is imperative, as is catching the disease in an early stage.
Mesothelioma is almost always caused by an exposure to asbestos, a natural mineral that is used in a myriad of products. The havoc it causes within the body can sit dormant for 30 to 50 years.
Catherine Cook’s exposure to asbestos likely came decades ago and from a place she rarely went a factory that produced insulation materials not far from where she lived. She never worked there, but her father once did and her first husband did, too. She would wash her husband’s clothes every day, unknowingly inhaling the deadly fibers.
“At first when my mom was sick, people would say, ‘I didn’t’ know your mother smoked.’ But she didn’t smoke. She never smoked. She never drank. She lived a healthy life. She didn’t bring this upon herself,” Rebecca said. “It’s really scary to think they still are producing products with asbestos when they knew long ago, it was killing people.”
Daily Reminders of Mesothelioma
Rebecca now drives to work every day in New Orleans to an older office building that likely has asbestos in its walls, floors and ceiling. She passes a least one billboard that mentions mesothelioma as a killer. There are other families in the area that have been rocked by the same diagnosis. She doesn’t need the reminder. She still feels a need to help others cope.
“In a perfect world, I’d like to become this amazing scientist and find a cure for mesothelioma, or at least find a way to test people early, to stop it from reaching the stage where there is nothing you can do,” Rebecca said. “What I’d like someday is to have kids of my own and, start a non-profit organization to raise money for research to find a cure.”
Before her wedding, Rebecca and her husband-to-be asked guests that instead of gifts for the new couple, to find a charity that helps fund mesothelioma research. What they found, though, were very few that used the money exclusively for this particular cancer, which is considered rare by comparison to others.
“I’d spend my whole life raising money for this cause if it could spare one family from having to go through what my mother went through,” Rebecca said. “She was the best mother anyone could ask for, but near the end, she couldn’t walk five feet without needing oxygen. I just feel the need to do something about this disease. She would want me to help find a cure.”