Six years after a diagnosis of malignant pleural mesothelioma, David Cutts was asking his wife to dance. They were sitting together, enjoying themselves at the wedding reception of their oldest grandson, and Cutts was feeling frisky.
She smiled and accepted his invitation.
It was great to be alive.
Cutts, 70, is a Marine Corps veteran — including six months in Vietnam — who refused to let mesothelioma become a death sentence. In 2005, he opted for the most aggressive treatment option he could find, a radical extrapleural pneumonectomy (EPP), performed by surgeon David Sugarbaker at Brigham & Women’s Hospital.
For Cutts, it worked.
His right lung was removed, along with parts of the pericardium and diaphragm, a rib and a section of the parietal pleura. He underwent heated chemotherapy while in surgery, and radiation therapy afterward.
“I am, what most people would say, cancer-free right now,” Cutts said recently from his home in New Jersey. “They literally took my body apart and rebuilt it. They used a lot of Gortex, the same blue stuff used to make my waterproof jacket that I bought at L.L. Bean a few years before.
“I’ve got replacement parts, like the Six-Million Dollar Man. I’m not saying I’m back to normal because I’m not there, but I’m alive and still doing a lot of things.”
Cutts was declined medical benefits from the VA — unable to prove his mesothelioma came from military service — but was undeterred. He found Sugarbaker, who heads the International Mesothelioma Program and is one of the few surgeons who does the EPP surgery.
“Most doctors don’t have a clue about treating mesothelioma or about this surgery. Originally, I was given six months to a year to live,” he said. “You can always opt to do nothing, which a lot of people do. They think the world has ended. But this surgery can save your life, give you much of your life back. I’m proof.”
According to the latest statistics, less than 8 percent of mesothelioma patients 55 or older are still alive after five years. The majority of them die within two years. There is no known cure for mesothelioma.
Cutts does deal with persistent pain in his abdomen, but he manages with pain medication. He returns to Boston for tests every six months. And he keeps his fingers crossed.
“I’ve already beaten the odds. I have pain, but not crippling pain. It’s not like I’m in bed all the time,” he said. “It’s important that people who get this diagnosis understand that there still is hope. This is not a dead end every time.”
Cutts and his wife moved to an active life retirement community just a few years before he was diagnosed. He had his own boat. He started a sailing club there. He usually was the life of the party. Mesothelioma changed him, but it didn’t kill him.
“I’m an ex-Marine. I used to be really active, never hired anyone to do anything around my house,” he said. “Now I’m limited to minor gardening. I’ll go to the mall for a couple hours. My heart is in everything. I still want to do everything I once did. But my body doesn’t always answer the call.”
Cutts answered the call to serve his country in the 1960s when he served three years as a Marine. He believes his mesothelioma came from the three weeks he spent on a Navy ship, where asbestos was prevalent. An estimated 30 percent of mesothelioma lawsuits in the United States are filed by those who served in the military, although an unquantifiable number were exposed at work after they left the military.
When Cutts left the service, he became a writer, doing everything from teaching guides to children’s books. He never worked construction, or any other occupation — beyond military service — that is normally associated with asbestos exposure.
“The VA told me my exposure wasn’t long enough. And that’s just not right,” he said. “You can’t fight City Hall, and you can’t fight the Navy, but you try.”
There is no bitterness in his voice today, just a willingness to help other veterans who might be facing the same plight he did when he was first diagnosed. He was fortunate to have insurance beyond anything the VA would offer.
He already is talking about Christmas, even two months away. It’s when his three children, their spouses and his six grandchildren will gather at his home like they do every year. And of course, his wife may dance with him again.
“I was having a good retirement until the bomb (mesothelioma) hit,” he said. “But it could have been worse. I’ve been fortunate. I’m an optimist. I always thought I could be the exception, the guy who lasts past the two-year mark. And I’m still going.”