New Mexico’s House Speaker announced this week that he has been battling Stage IV lung cancer since 2009.
What’s more Ben Lujan told his colleagues and constituents, is that he contracted the disease despite the fact he is not a smoker. Lujan, 76, has worked full-time, won an election and maintained a real sense of normalcy, and he said he believes his cancer is a result of asbestos exposure while working as an ironworker in a previous job.
Smoking accounts for about 90 percent of all lung cancer cases in men, putting the Lujan in a minority group of lung cancer patients. Radon exposure and asbestos exposure collectively account for the other 10 percent.
Beyond lung cancer, asbestos has been linked to multiple other respiratory diseases including asbestosis and mesothelioma, which is a rare cancer of the lining of the lungs that affect nearly 3,000 people per year.
Asbestos Likely to Blame
Lujan’s diagnosis wasn’t conclusively linked to asbestos exposure, but based on his work experience and the fact that he was a nonsmoker, asbestos is likely to blame.
He has acknowledged that he worked as an iron worker at Los Alamos National Laboratory, likely in a capacity that provided exposure to multiple toxic hazards. An ironworker is one of the jobs that have been commonly linked to occupational exposure to asbestos. Working with or around such a dangerous material takes a toll on the health which is not often apparent until 20 to 50 years after exposure.
Once inhaled or ingested, asbestos fibers can get lodged in the lung or other organs where they will remain for years. Because of the body’s difficulty to get rid of these fibers, they continually damage various organs over the course of numerous years. Eventually, fatal diseases like lung cancer, mesothelioma or asbestosis may develop.
The speaker’s experience as an ironworker places him in a category with thousands of other industrial workers, such as construction workers, railroad workers, insulators and miners, who have received a cancer diagnosis stemming from work.
His current work in the state legislature provides him with a much safer working environment, one that doesn’t require the inhalation of known carcinogens on a daily basis. Somehow, even with a late-stage cancer in his lungs, he manages to keep on going.
“He’s been working hard,” House Majority Leader Ken Martinez said.
Working With Cancer
Lujan’s level of activity with the cancer appears to be at the forefront of much of the shock of his announcement. Common perceptions about a person with Stage IV lung cancer are that they would be physically limited and unable to maintain a normal life.
The House Speaker does not fit this description.
Dr. Richard Lauer, executive medical director at the University of New Mexico Cancer Center, where the Speaker was treated, finds Lujan’s level of productivity during later stage cancers more common than some would think.
“I have many patients with stage IV lung cancer who are working full time and leading productive lives. You can live for years with stage 4 lung cancer. Your life doesn’t end at that point.”
Because of health-care privacy laws, Lauer was unable to discuss the specifics of Lujan’s cancer. Even without knowing the details of the speaker’s diagnosis, it is clear that he stands as an example to other cancer patients and anyone who is battling a difficult disease.
Depending on the specific type of lung cancer that he was diagnosed with, estimates of the survival rate for his cancer can range from around 2 percent to 60 percent. Through his resiliency, Lujan exemplifies real public service by continuing to serve his state while battling what is likely the hardest fight of his life.
“Anybody who faces this kind of low and continues to function is worthy of respect. They should be complimented for overcoming this adversity and still functioning in society,” Lauer said.