My father, David, died of cancer in April 2014. My mother, Karen, died of cancer in August 2014. I can’t begin to explain how their deaths, in such close succession, felt for me, and how their absence still hurts. That is something you can only imagine, and I don’t wish it upon anyone. What I can talk about, however, is the rage I feel against those responsible, and the fear I live in – of soon having the same fate.
My parents died young (61 and 60), not because they were careless, not because they were in an accident, not because of anything they did. They died because of something that was done to them, rather. Lung cancer and mesothelioma, their diagnoses, are not usually something you get without exposure. Especially mesothelioma, which you only get through exposure to asbestos; and lung cancer, too, is caused or made worse by asbestos, too – and smoking, of course.
If David and Karen died months apart, it is because asbestos killed them both. My family was not rich; my dad worked hard to support us, and my mother stayed at home and did odd jobs to raise us kids and keep the house. My dad worked as a mechanic, and he would come home at night, dirty, smelling like diesel oil and all kinds of chemicals, and he would give us a hug, lift us kids up in his arms, kiss my mom, play ball with us, while my mom would fix dinner, send us to wash our hands, have my dad change, and sit us all down to eat. We’d then do the dishes and she would collect our dirty clothes and do the laundry.
For years, my dad’s smell was that of the car shops where he worked. We didn’t know, at the time, that his clothes collected not just the fumes he was working around, but also asbestos fibers that he was in daily contact with. As a mechanic, he worked with car parts that had been made with asbestos, and no one told him, ever, that asbestos was dangerous. It was only much later that I learned how this mineral, that we all know exists, was long known to cause terrible diseases when its fibers came loose and were inhaled. People had researched this issue decades ago, and yet, employers who had a responsibility to their workers chose to ignore the research.
When my parents started to wheeze and cough, we thought maybe it was the odd cigarette they smoked now and then. But then it got worse. We had moved out, but we saw them often and noticed how they got short of breath when they climbed a few stairs, how they got dizzy when they bent over to put on their shoes, how they started to complain of chest pain. All our family, who had always been so united, got together to convince them to see a doctor. Several doctors, as it turned out, because a lot of tests and check-ups needed to be done.
We had heard about lung cancer, and suspected it when we talked about my parents’ symptoms. My mother’s diagnosis, though, floored me. I had heard about mesothelioma before, though I didn’t quite know how to pronounce it, and I knew it had something to do with asbestos. But my mother? What did she have to do with asbestos?
Dr. Hazel A. explained, then, that secondary exposure was also a cause of asbestos-related diseases. She had been exposed through the thousands of laundry loads she did over the years, through my dad’s skin and hair, through inhaling the fiber-rich air he was exhaling. My dad had asbestosis with his cancer, and my mother had mesothelioma. It was too late for both of them: the fibers had done their damage over decades, and now they were in the last stages of their disease.
When my father died, we barely had time to mourn him: my mother was also dying, and we were struggling to make ends meet. Medical bills are huge, the coverage is limited and complicated, and we also had to hold down jobs while taking care of my mother, her house and our house. We were also struggling to understand how this could happen. Through the Environmental Litigation Group, we started procedures to claim compensation from the asbestos trust funds. My mother died before she saw any results, and I had to take up the process and go through with the claim.
The compensation we now receive for the damage done to my parents is doing a lot to ease the financial burden that two cancers placed on our already struggling family. What is left is something you may think is cowardly – but it’s true nevertheless: I live in fear of dying. How much exposure did I get as a child? Do I have cancer already? Tests say no, but now I know it can take a long time before any damage is seen in my lungs or lung tissue. For now, there is nothing left to do other than to find comfort in faith, in hope, and in leading the best life I can.