A cancer diagnosis 40 years after a hospital renovation

I worked at the Osteopathic Hospital of Maine, now part of Maine Medical Center, in the 1970s during a major renovation of the Portland-based facility.

I vividly remember what they were doing and how nurses like me were affected by the construction.

Medical staff at the hospital were diverted through a corridor of the building’s boiler room to clock in and out for work every day. I remember walking past plastic sheeting separating us from construction areas and past boiler room pipes to get to the main floor at the back stairs.

The renovation took several months. At that moment I thought nothing of it. In any case, we were excited to get a new front lobby and renovated X-ray department.

This was during the height of asbestos use in America, when construction companies used a range of asbestos-containing materials for projects. All I knew about asbestos at the time was that it was fire retardant.

But I never thought that the dust blown up by the renovation would be harmful to my health.

It wasn’t until around 2000 that I really started to become more aware of the dangers of asbestos. I remember seeing countless stories on the news about reducing the mineral in schools and old buildings.

Mesothelioma was not something I had researched. I’ve never met anyone with it in my 43 years as a Registered Nurse. It was just a term I’d heard but didn’t really know details about.

But after my diagnosis of pleural mesothelioma in 2012, I made the connection between that hospital renovation and the cancer in my breast.

Don’t harp on exposure or ‘Why me?’ Mentality

After I was diagnosed, I honestly didn’t think much about how I was developing mesothelioma.

It was probably caused by the renovation of the hospital, but I couldn’t have done anything to change things.

The biggest thing that struck me when I was diagnosed was how long I had this cancer in my body before anyone noticed. I had four surgeries in a 10-year period that required chest X-rays.

While X-rays are the most basic imaging scan, they may be able to detect damage or abnormalities in the body. But that’s only if the doctor reading the X-ray knows what he’s looking at.

Most doctors have never seen mesothelioma before and they are not trained to know how to identify it.

It is something I have now inculcated in my GP. If I’m not feeling well, he will do a scan and tests, but always defer to my medical oncologist in Boston if he thinks it’s related to the mesothelioma.

Don’t Avoid Diagnostic Tests

Mesothelioma is often diagnosed in the later stages because the cancer is so rare and early symptoms resemble those of a cold or flu.

And for someone like me – who doesn’t have a long history of heavy exposure to asbestos – no one knows to look for it until things go bad.

Most people don’t want to go to the doctor. They find it unnecessary or unaffordable, or they are simply afraid of the possible results.

I never meddle where my opinion or advice is not justified. But I have no problem telling friends and family that if the symptoms persist for more than a few days, they should get it checked out.

An example that comes to mind is people who have to sit on an oxygen tank but refuse it. They may not feel much of a difference with the oxygen, but I explain what it does for their hearts and that without oxygen they can have a heart attack and die.

That always grabs their attention.

The same applies to diagnostic keys. If you choose to live and take care of things that are not right with you, then you must undergo these tests.

Prevention is better than cure

My mother had colon cancer. I urge all my concerns to get colonoscopies, and I am very careful to make sure their GPs have an accurate family history of medical problems.

I tell them it’s their choice. If they choose not to have a colonoscopy and they don’t care if one day they find out they have colon cancer, that’s their choice.

It comes down to having all the information to make the best decisions for their health and well-being.

With my background as a registered nurse, family and friends often come to me for advice. Some want me to accompany them to doctor’s appointments.

I am always happy to help in any way I can.

A friend’s husband recently started having breathing problems. I told my friend to tell their doctor about her husband’s work history as a mechanic for the last 40 years or so.

They haven’t found any tumors, but they still can’t pinpoint the exact problem. I told them to raise the possibility that it is mesothelioma, even if it embarrasses their doctor. I said if they tell you it isn’t, ask them to explain how they know.

It’s a shame you have to be so aggressive, but here in rural Maine – and many other places in the US – you have to do that for answers.

You can’t be afraid to be wrong because it could save your life if you’re not.

Where to draw the line?

There is a balance between being hypochondriac and being proactive with your health care. There are timetables associated with each type of symptom that determine whether it is non-acute or acute.

If you do what you need to do and it’s resolved, it’s not acute. If it’s not what you think it is and the symptoms persist, it’s acute and you should get it checked out.

Mesothelioma is very rare. I hardly knew anything about it before 2012, and I certainly never thought of being one of the roughly 3,000 people diagnosed each year in the U.S.

But if you’ve worked around asbestos or engaged in a risky profession, like my friend’s husband, you should never rule it out as a possibility.

Nobody should do that. Because it can happen to anyone. It happened to me.

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