Celebrity Sean Sasser of MTV fame lived productively for 25 years after being diagnosed with HIV, a testament to the progress that has been made in treating a once-deadly disease.
Yet he lived only six weeks after being diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma, a reminder of how aggressive this asbestos cancer is.
Sasser, who rose to fame in “The Real World: San Francisco,” a reality television show that launched in the 1990s, died last week. He was 44. His death came soon after he was hit by the rare but lethal interaction of these two insidious diseases.
“If you are HIV positive, and you get mesothelioma, it’s going to travel like wildfire. It happens so fast, it makes your head spin,” said Raja Flores, M.D., chief of thoracic surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City and a renowned authority on mesothelioma.
“You hardly ever see it — I’ve seen it only twice in my life — but you put the two together, and it’s a real bad situation,” Flores told Asbestos.com.
Flores did not treat Sasser and did not speak of him specifically, but he responded to a question about the effect that HIV would have on a mesothelioma patient.
Immune System Plays Key Role
Mesothelioma, which is diagnosed in an estimated 3,000 Americans annually, is caused by inhalation or ingestion of microscopic asbestos fibers. There is normally a long latency period (10 to 50 years) between exposure and diagnosis. It is diagnosed typically in older patients (65-70) who worked for many years around asbestos products.
The expected survival rate after diagnosis of mesothelioma is 9 to 18 months. The key to recent advancements in survival time has been immunotherapy, which fights the disease by strengthening the body’s immune system.
HIV, conversely, attacks the body’s immune system and destroys cells that help the body fight various diseases, which is why it triggers such a negative reaction with mesothelioma.
“I don’t know of any connection where HIV will predispose you to getting mesothelioma, but if you put them together, it will travel quickly,” Flores said. “It happens so rarely. It’s not the typical patient population we see.”
Sasser, according to various reports, had no known occupational exposure to asbestos. However, because asbestos was used extensively in both residential and commercial construction throughout much of the 20th century, millions of Americans were unknowingly exposed to the toxic mineral.
According to a multi-center study in 2009 that is part of Cases Journal and the National Institutes of Health, researchers believe that HIV can make a person prone to developing mesothelioma, and even suggested it could cause the disease.
“The development of mesothelioma in patients with HIV/AIDS … suggests that chronic immunosuppression enhances susceptibility to mesothelioma,” says the study. “Cases have been reported in this patient population without a history of asbestos exposure.”
Compelling Story Line
Sasser became well-known after breaking cultural barriers with his well-publicized commitment ceremony on “The Real World” show to Pedro Zamora. They were the first openly gay, openly HIV-positive couple on television. Zamora, a better-known AIDS activist, died of the disease shortly after the final episode of the season aired in 1994.
At the time, AIDS still was considered a fatal disease. It wasn’t until later in the decade that rapid advancements in treatment developed.
Sasser, like many others, was able to manage the disease through vigilance and medical advancements. His relationship with Zamora became the most compelling story line for the show. It also was a landmark moment in television history.
Sasser remained an AIDS activist and educator for many years, although his television career faded. He worked much of this year in Washington, D.C., as a pastry chef.
Sasser’s longtime partner, Michael Kaplan, told CNN last week, a day after his death was announced, that Sasser was diagnosed early in July with Stage IV mesothelioma.
It followed diagnostic tests in June that first revealed serious problems. He died in the home he shared with Kaplan, according to CNN.