Janelle Bedel became an unlikely hero amid the horror caused by the once-extensive use of asbestos in America.
Bedel, 37, died Wednesday night after a courageous six-year battle with malignant pleural mesothelioma that transformed her from a shy, reserved, small-town woman in Indiana into a respected national spokesperson who worked long and hard to raise awareness and help others avoid her plight.
She wore with great pride the “Wonder Woman” superhero T-shirt she was given shortly after her diagnosis.
“She kept battling back, kept coming back, time and time again,” said her cousin, Regina Sharp, who lives nearby in Rushville, Ind. “That’s why `Wonder Woman’ just stuck with her. It was unbelievable how people here rallied around her.”
After working tirelessly for years to raise awareness, Bedel moved to in-home hospice care earlier this month and stopped much of the treatment that helped her earlier. She died hoping that others could continue her work, her fight against the continued use of asbestos.
Mesothelioma is a rare but aggressive cancer that is caused by exposure to asbestos, a toxic but naturally occurring mineral that was used throughout the 20th century. Although its use has dropped dramatically, asbestos remains legal and plentiful throughout the United States.
“She wants to leave a legacy for her son,” Sharp told Asbestos.com a few days before Janelle died. “She wants to help prevent this from happening to anyone else. That gave her strength to keep going.”
The small town of Rushville, which is 40 miles outside of Indianapolis, has embraced her cause. Earlier this month, Mayor Michael Pavey issued an official city proclamation, designating June 6 as “Wonder Woman Day,” honoring Bedel’s fight against asbestos.
The town has held numerous fundraising events in the past few years, including bike rallies, road races, wiffle-ball tournaments and raffles — all to raise money for organizations that have worked toward the same goals. Earlier this month, the local Hardees Restaurant in Rushville hosted a fundraising event that directed 20 percent of all food sales to the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization.
The Corner Restaurant in Rushville, a town of 6,000, painted a “Wonder Woman” picture on its store-front window and proclaimed June 19 there as Janelle Bedel Day, offering a portion of its sales throughout the day to the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation.
Bedel’s reach, though, went well beyond Rushville. Her appearance before Congress was instrumental in the Senate Resolution that now proclaims September 26 as National Mesothelioma Awareness Day.
She traveled and spoke at numerous national conferences and symposiums that supported the belief that asbestos should be banned, like it is in more than 50 countries around the world.
She did her work between a myriad of surgeries, numerous setbacks and treatment regimens that were exhausting. In the past year, she traveled with a wheelchair and an oxygen tank, always pushing forward with her goal. She went to New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Las Vegas, along with stops in between, to raise awareness.
“She wants her work to live on,” her brother, Bennie Cameron, told the Rushville Republican Newspaper earlier this month.
Bedel was an unusual case from the start. Mesothelioma is mostly an occupational disease, striking those who worked close to asbestos for extended periods. The long latency period (10 to 50 years) between exposure and diagnosis is why it mostly strikes older people.
She was young and healthy when it hit her at age 31, working at a local bank in Rushville. Her son was 4. Her exposure was second-hand and totally shocking, likely stemming from her childhood.
Her condition started with a sudden and severe shortness of breath, originally diagnosed as asthma and bronchitis. It took months of testing to correctly diagnosis the problem, eventually leading to the aggressive extrapleural pneumonectomy (EPP) surgery that includes the removal of a lung, the lining around it and parts of her diaphragm. Radiation and chemotherapy became regular companions. In 2011, she discovered that the disease had spread to her abdominal cavity, prompting more surgeries and different extensive treatments.
Earlier this month, she announced on her Facebook page that she was moving to hospice care, touching off a flurry of activity that has included hundreds of her Facebook followers changing their profile pictures to the Wonder Woman logo.
“What she has done really is remarkable,” Sharp said. “She is such a soft-spoken woman, not the kind you would expect to see speaking in front of a crowd or doing a television interview. She did what she did, trying to help others.”